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Smoove & Turrell: when real music becomes too expensive

October 30, 2014

The rise of digital music, samples and DJs instead of musicians may not be just an evolution in music, it looks like the economic effect of a society when music made by working musicians is just too expensive.

My friend Andy Carling made this delicious interview with Smoove & Turrell, a band of soul musicians from Newcastle, “one of the most deprived cities in Europe”, as Andy puts it. I decided to host it on my blog, as it shows some real social and cultural reflexion in the minds of a group of artists who decided to make no compromise.



When the now legendary soul, R&B and funk labels started in the 50s and 60s in the US, nobody would have guessed that the sound would find a home in Newcastle, one of the most deprived cities in Europe.

It’s a community the duo and their five piece band are proud of. “We’re still in a massive recession, it’s easing off elsewhere, but the North East’s a sort of forgotten place,” says singer John Turrell, “It’s a lovely place to live, it’s marvellous. It just needs a bit more help that it’s getting.”

He adds, “There’s more food banks in the North East than anywhere else in the country.”



Turrell continues, “We have a very proud heritage of making things, doing things and a lot of that’s gone.”

“We need to reinvent the whole city, area,” says Smoove who says that part of their mission is to promote the region by showing their musical culture is alive and kicking.

It’s also a source of inspiration for their music. “I love to sing songs that mean something to me, about love, my kids, frustrations, the government, the North East,” says Turrell. Smoove agrees, “You can release a lot of anxiety, frustration and get your passion out.”

This is not new, the area has been long associated with folk music, which sounds very different. “If you think about it,” says Turrell, “Folk music is just telling a story and that gets passed down the generations and gets ingrained and I see myself as no different. I want to say what I’m feeling what the wonderful people of my area are feeling and that says far more than generic music.”



He continues, “Britain has a fantastic array of artists who speak about politics and people’s lives. There are some terrible places in London, say, and there are kids coming out with fantastic lyrics, just trying to tell people ‘Don’t forget me just because George Osbourn says everything’s going great’. It isn’t.

“Capitalism’s great if it’s done properly, democracy too, but at the minute it isn’t and the divide between the rich and the poor is getting wider. It’s scandalous, really scandalous and something’s got to change.”

They are using their talents to give identity to their community, their city and region. Turrell’s songwriting gives a warm, passionate and honest look at themselves and their lives.

“Unity through music,” says Smoove, “It’s like when we’re told that in a recession people won’t go out, but to be honest, people will always go out even if they’ve got no money.” Going out, meeting people and listening to music together is almost an act of defiance. “It’s a way of saying don’t let them grind you down,” says Turrell.

“The worst of times are sometimes the best of times,” he adds.

This, it seems is the key to soul music and the philosophy of the region and the musicians. Their music is the sound of people talking honestly about their lives, their joy and pain with the pride and self respect of their character, their dignity, their integrity.

Like everything else in the North East, it’s hard to get by, especially if you’re a musician… and have a seven piece band.



The rise of digital music, samples and DJs instead of musicians may not be just an evolution in music, it looks like the economic effect of a society when music made by working musicians is just too expensive.

“Man, it’s so hard to get by these days,” says Smoove, who has been a DJ and producer since the 90s, “I get sick of hearing that bands really only make money by playing live, it’s just not true.”

And making money by making music? “The downloads are getting a little better, but in the next few years it’s going to move to streaming.” Turrell adds, “The revenue from streaming is terrible.”

Smoove warns, “It’s terrible, you can only make anything through sync rights (getting a deal with a film, advert and so on for using a song). It’s the end of music.”

Like anyone else who creates, they need to earn a living, “You’ve got to pay the bills,” says Smoove. He has more bills than many to pay. While the industry prays before the digital gods, it is noticeable that one effect has been the rise of the single performer making mp3s and, with luck just about getting by, there’s something missing.

With the corporate end of the music scene always providing just enough huge acts, with large budgets, marketing teams and so on, it is those at street level who provide the real energy, inspiration and innovation. It’s never been easy, with seven musicians, it’s near impossible.

“We only do a tour like this with the support of the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) who sponsored us. If it wasn’t for people like this there wouldn’t be anything left,” says Turrell.

Smoove has a pragmatic approach, “I don’t put all my eggs in one basket, I try to get a little money here, there, which all add up. I might make a little from DJing, producing and so on. Sponsorship money, you never see that, it pays for all the stuff behind the scenes. But paying the bills in your own house, that’s a different matter all together.”

Smoove adds, “We’ve got to pay the band.” Turrell explains their way of getting a show with a full band, “We soon worked out that I could sing over a mix set by Smoove, so we offered venues that if they wouldn’t take on the cost of the full band.”

Smoove adds, “90% of the time, they ask us to come back with the full band, so it’s like an advert for us.”

What about Europe, is the EU helping what many would call ‘real’ music?

“I’m no eurosceptic,” says Turrell, “I’m proud to be British but I’m proud to be European as well. I think it’s fantastic that we can cross borders without thinking about it, it’s fantastic that if I become ill, I have the e-health card.” Smoove agrees.

“Europe in itself is an amazing idea,” Turrell continues, noting that one of the characteristics of Europe is the diversity, so diverse that “What’s traditional in one place, the complete opposite is somewhere else.”

He adds, “I hate to say it, but the English don’t do themselves any favours when they go to these places and get terrifically drunk, but that’s the 1%. The other 99% are fantastic people who just want to work, make money and love who they love and that’s it.”

But there are limits to Europe, Turrell says, approving preserving the myriad different cultures and traditions, but he adds that he wants to see power devolved and “cut red tape.”

Why is cutting red tape a priority for a soul singer? It’s because musicians are in business. The cultural sector is not only a significant part of Europe’s GDP, it’s also a large employer, but the industry, like others, seems to favour the larger players and companies.

We‘re told that SMEs are the soul of Europe’s economy, so how can we create better conditions for our soul brothers? A digital single market is one important need. “You can’t watch our videos in Germany for some reason,” says a puzzled Smoove, “It just says you can’t watch this video.”

“Every country’s got its own collections agency,” says Turrell on the bodies that collect royalties for artists, a notoriously opaque arrangement. “The money you make in each country disappears for about two years,” he adds.

“It’s the most complicated nonsense in the world. It’s crazy how it works,” says Smoove with the frustration of a man who can’t get the money his songs earn in a timely or fair manner.

Performing is central to a vibrant musical culture and the bigger the band, the harder it is. “In Holland there’s more effort to promote musicians and sponsoring musicians. The UK does a lot but the funding goes to the wrong people, the big artists and not little outfits like ourselves. It’s getting more difficult to keep the show on the road,” says Turrell.

“We want to pay the lads a proper wage,” he says.

“There’s sponsorship,” says Smoove, “But that’s really difficult to get and you might get musical instruments or clothes. That’s nice but it doesn’t help in the grander scheme of things.”

Asked what change they need most of all, their answer is the same as every other business. “We need to be able to get loans, but you can’t get one because bands aren’t viable things, but it would be great if there was a fund or government office to get a loan, on something similar to a student loan where you don’t start paying back till you reach a certain income,” they say.

A pan-European fund would be more suitable, given that many bands tour and sell in countries over than their own and cross border collaboration has been a fact of musical life for centuries.

“The music industry is a huge thing, there’s so much more to it than just artists,” says Smoove noting that the industry covers graphic design, production, marketing, distribution and so much more. “It annoys me when people say being a musician isn’t a proper job. It is and in the music industry, there’s an amazing number of avenues you can walk down.”

While the fantasy of a starving artist, keeping pure for their art is a cliché, the truth is that any level of success requires business skills.

“We didn’t set out to start a business,” says Smoove, “but as we grew it became that and we got a manager and we’re always learning about business. “I’m a carpenter,” says Turrell, “I learned my trade, my apprenticeship and I worked for 15 years. If you look at our band, some of them have been playing their instrument since they were six years old. The time and effort it took to become as brilliant as they are, surely that counts for something?” asks Turrell.

“Car insurance. Astronomical. House insurance. Astronomical. You can understand why so many musicians just give up.” This is one of the legacies of the reputation musicians have for being hellraisers.

“I can’t,” says Turrell, “I’m a dad. I’ve got three kids. I need to put food on the table, pay the mortgage.”

He’s not complaining. He feels fortunate to be in a place where he can use his talents, but he needs to earn a living.

Smoove mentions marketing. A band will need this, but it is expensive. They suggest that advising musicians on how to market would be a useful skill to teach and could being success and more jobs.



“The greatest bands in the world have never been discovered, that’s my feeling. Marketing is 80% of any business. If there was something to help us market our business, especially for Europe, that would be a real help.”

One issue that becomes apparent is that music is still an area with little funding, fewer training opportunities and even less awareness of the few opportunities available.”

The talent and creativity is a great strength of Europe, probably nowhere more so than in the creative sector, but our greatest asset is being damaged by not taking such an important sector seriously enough, being too star struck by a few leading artists.

Reconstructing support can enable creatives to understand business, grow their talents and the end result will be a rich cultural sector.

Music faces a very difficult future and Europe’s musicians need the same support offered to other SMEs. Take them seriously and listen to them.

Why not, we listen to their music after all. Let’s have soul not dole in Newcastle and throughout Europe.

The rise of digital music, samples and DJs instead of musicians may not be just an evolution in music, it looks like the economic effect of a society when music made by working musicians is just too expensive.


Andy Carling


Typists at the Gates of Dawn…
(In concert with Andy Carling, producing prose, as Molière would put it…)

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