Alun Parry is a modern musician. He’s a whole lot more besides – but it’s the push, pull and politics of the places his singing and songwriting has brought him that define where he goes next. And how he gets there. Parry is an online originator and one of only a handful of musicians who has fully embraced the possibilities of communicating directly to the listener… without worrying about what he might have lost. The latest #LiverpoolLessOrdinary, then, is exactly that. In every way. By Alan O’Hare.
There’s a lot of talk in this city and beyond at the minute of the role of the modern musician. That talk often turns quickly to the Internet and the impact its daily erosion of former routines has had on music, musicians and (let’s be honest) money. But there are other trains of thought that offer an alternative to the constant unwillingness to accept change that seems to clog both social, and the music, media. “Honestly, I don’t see the curse of it,” says folk singer Alun Parry. “A lot of musicians see the Internet as this awful thing, but I can’t get my head around that. It’s put the means of production and distribution in our hands – what’s not to like? I know that people point to things like falling royalties, but let’s face it, this is only an issue with those elite musicians who get record deals. I’m not one for getting too worried about elites.”
A quick note… when we say ‘folk singer’, that’s only the half of it. The Scouse singer and songwriter is also a thinker, a rebel, a catalyst, a creator and a Renaissance man. Poymath Parry should be seen as the North Star for modern musicians – yet he remains the perfect anomaly. “These days, every musician is an online entrepreneur,” he declares. “Then again, I’m one of those people who just loves ideas… ”
He’s right. Artists who have spent their entire career rallying around revolution appeared to shit themselves the second the sugar daddies disappeared. Sure, no two stories will be the same and to generalise such a massive subject, with so many nooks and crannies of the soul, would be both dangerous and disingenuous. Yet the fact remains that it’s never been easier to get your music to the only thing that really matters: the first person to hear it. You just have to be, well, creative.
Parry is the perfect subject for #LiverpoolLessOrdinary as that’s exactly what he is. Well, he’s also an online tutor, podcaster, football club founder and Liverpool’s answer to Woody Guthrie (without the suite of songs about VD, to be fair). But, deep down, he’s a seeker – and always on the look out to scratch that permanent social itch.
What do you tell people your occupation is?
I always say musician. People ask ‘what do you do’… but they really mean ‘who are you’. And musician is the right answer. I normally pause and then add that I do online course development and coaching as well.
Most people know you for being a folk singer…
Like I said, these days every musician is an online entrepreneur. I also teach and help people from across the world via the Internet – teaching is something I’ve always been passionate about. Sometimes I do it through song, other times through courses.
What is it about online communication that excites you?
I think the Internet offers us so many ways to express ourselves. I remember as a kid… I had a typewriter, some dry transfer letters and I’d make my own little magazines. I’d write everything in them, but nobody read them. I had a little cassette player with a microphone and I’d do sports commentary into it. Now, I can write a blog and anyone can read it. I can do webinars, online videos, courses, songs… pretty much anything. It’s brilliant – I’m back being a kid again pretending to be a grown up! Except this time other people are joining in. The exciting thing is that we can connect across the world. I gave an hour’s coaching recently to some guy in Australia. It was great…
… which wouldn’t have happened before we were all online daily.
He wouldn’t have even known I existed! Another thing I like is that we can build real communities with people who are scattered geographically. I run two at the moment on Facebook: one is for fellow musicians, the other is for fans of my music. It’s a great way to be engaged with people, rather than just broadcasting at them. We can find others like us these days really easily.
That’s vital for a musician, isn’t it?
I think music must be the only industry that tries to develop an audience by expecting artists to travel the country aimlessly pushing our product to handfuls of disinterested strangers who often don’t even expect you to be there! No business would have that as the heart of their strategy… these days, you can find your audience online with less effort, time and not much more money.
What about seeing the whites of people’s eyes and building something tangible?
There’s a lot of good reasons for playing live: enjoyment, experience, audience interaction, learning stagecraft and discovering which songs are hot and cold. But developing an audience isn’t one of them. I think musicians would gain a lot from looking at how others do business in the online age and stealing a few strategies.
The mass of musicians would never have been able to make records without all this new technology – we’d have been at the mercy of suits and gatekeepers. Now, there’s no gatekeepers except music fans themselves. It’s us and the people we inspire. Costs are lower and communication is easier. I honestly only see a plus side… which is why I started ‘Be Your Own Record Label’; my way of helping other musicians make records independently of a label. I want to help other musicians be successful as independent artists.
Tell us more please, Al’…
There’s a fab free community with over 600 musicians from across the world (linked above). But, for those who want to go deeper, there’s a full membership site that’s an ongoing resource for a music career. It took me nearly two years to put all the content together and it takes people step-by-step through the process of funding, releasing and marketing their music. I’m creating new content all the time based on what musicians tell me that they need…
What about your own music… how are you approaching that now?
I’ve decided to limit gigging, as I find that two in every three gigs is a dead loss. It’s good to gig lots when you’re starting out – but I’m happier writing and recording these days. I miss being with an audience, as I thrive on a good listening crowd and I love the interaction, but if I was given six months to live, then I’d want to be recording my songs rather than doing gigs. The studio has become my priority.
What can we expect next, then?
The new album will be out in March. I don’t go for ‘concept’ albums, so I’ll pick twelve songs that I like and put them together. It’ll be a typical mix, still very indie folk with a Celtic and Americana twist. There’s a couple of rattling guitar tracks, too!
Great. You’ve got a recording and release strategy we imagine…
I’ve made myself the goal that, from now on, I’ll be releasing an album every year. So, the next one is out in March 2017. The one after that in March 2018. The one after that in March 2019…. as a songwriter, I hate that I have even one song not recorded – and I write more prolifically than I record – so I decided to get moving on the recording front.
That’s a brilliant idea and, again, puts your initiatives at the forefront of your art.
I’ve always been fiercely independent and I don’t see the need for record labels in this day and age. If I wanted a boss, I’d get a job! I want to always be free to say and write what I want to and at least the money is reliable that way: when I do gig, I either promote them myself or rely on fans.
And the records?
I finance my records by a combination of upskilling myself, so my costs fall, and by seeking sponsorship and crowd funding.
How has this affected the development of your relationships with your peers in the music game?
I’m not sure. I think the best way to develop relationships is to be a decent person, open-hearted and try and help people out along the way… and that’s as old fashioned as it comes. The best advice I can give for building relationships and getting to know other musicians in your scene is to set up a music night and run it. Whether it’s an open mic night, or you’re booking people, you’ll soon know every musician around. And again, that’s pretty old fashioned. I did that a lot in my early years and made some good friends from it.
It’s not just music for you anymore though, is it… what can you tell us about your popular podcasts?
Well, I think a great podcast is one that is teeming with ideas, where the host is genuinely curious and excited about the conversation, the guest has a passion to share, and is given the space to share it. I find that I can get curious about most things, so even though I’m a musician, I’m far more likely to be listening to people talking than to music – when I go jogging I’ll tend to throw a podcast on.
Any favourites you can recommend?
I enjoy listening to interviews by people like James Altucher and Tim Ferriss.
Were they catalysts for you to start?
Well, I’m a big fan of what I call ‘play projects’: where I have a go at something I quite fancy and just see if I like it. The ‘Woody Guthrie Folk Club’ I started was a ‘play project’ that became a whole lot more, for example. Anyway, I decided to do the podcast as a ‘play project’ as I have a ton of interesting friends who I have fascinating chats with. I found myself always saying that ‘we should be recording this’ and I decided to do it. I started with some people I know, but it’s developed into finding people that interest me – for instance, I read a book about how chimpanzees conduct politics within their group, so I interviewed a primatologist.
I love talking to people and I love hearing stories and learning from them – it’s such a great way to find stuff out and that particular podcast has had a great reaction. I’d podcasts before, but this is my most enjoyable show so far. I love the format.
Let’s finish by returning to music. Tell us about ‘My Name Is Dessie Warren’.
That came about over many years, though the immediate trigger was that I was asked to play an event to commemorate the Shrewsbury 24, of which Dessie was one. I decided to write a song for it and recalled reading Dessie’s book, ‘The Key To My Cell’, when I was a lad. I particularly recalled his refusal to give his number to the prison authorities, which would get him into all sorts of trouble, and I read a load of obituaries to freshen up the details of what happened to him… but that central image of Dessie’s steadfastness and bravery that struck me as a teenager remained the centrepiece of the song. I’ve since met Ricky Tomlinson, who was another one of the 24, and he had some lyrics of his own he asked me to put some music to for him. That’s a pretty powerful number, given that the words are straight from the horse’s mouth…
Pic by Adrian Wharton