Starting a Folk Club

to pa or not to pa...

This does raise one issue you might want to consider. It is sort of 'traditional' that folk club audiences sit quietly and listen to the acts. I personally love listening to the music, and normally dislike the distraction of hearing anyone talking during a song, but even I have been known to whisper a conversation with someone during some interminably long and (to me) boring ballad.

Audiences do talk, so should organisers accommodate it more readily? One event I was involved with in Bedfordshire - The Slip Gigs in Slip End - was deliberately organised on the basis that the audience would talk, so had a large PA to make the artists were heard.

So the question is, do folk clubs appear too controlled and regimented to outsiders? Might they do better if the non-passionate-folk-fans felt they could not only hear some good music but also meet (and more importantly verbally greet) their friends without fear of approbation?

"Audiences do talk"? No they don't - well, not in Theatre, Ballet, Opera, "Classical" Music, "serious" Dance . . . indeed, not in contexts where it's believed that the performance is worthy of SERIOUS attention . .

So should organisers accommodate it?


a) if they want my custom, and

b) if they believe the performers they present are worthy of serious attention.

Now if you believe your Folk Club is competing with the "conversation only possible by shouting at the person stood within half a metre of you" disco down the road then by all means follow the route you suggest!

"Might they do better if the non-passionate-folk-fans felt they could not only hear some good music but also meet (and more importantly verbally greet) their friends without fear of approbation?" That's fine (if done with restraint) at many sessions/singarounds. It's pig ignorance if done in ANY performance in almost ANY genre.

All IMO, of course!

"My position is that folk clubs and folk artists don't need mikes, they interfere with the true quality of the voice, they bugger up the intimate relationship between the artist and the audience, they stop the audience joining in, they make it impossible to hear spontaneous harmony when you're in that sort of club. They are sterile, they encourage the rowdies to talk..."

I agree, as long as the room itself is acoustically OK (and I admit that there are a few rooms that are not because of size or sound deadening barriers - especially those which have are two rooms knocked into one, with a natural divider in the middle where an RSJ has been inserted well below the natural ceiling height to create a gap.)

I feel that - if we could but get the idea across to Joe Public - the one huge advantage of seeing a performer in a folk club is that they are close up and personal and _not_ squeezed through a PA system. It's a great selling point.

When the room _needs_ PA to ensure that the audience at the back gets just as good sound as the audience at the front, my feeling is that it should be treated as 'sound reinforcement' and that the volume should be kept down and the visual and audible impact of the equipment minimised as much as possible.

Although radio headsets are fairly expensive and can be problematic unless you have someone running sound who really understands them, a headset mic is subtle and much less obtrusive than a fixed stand mic. It gives the performer the opportunity to move and be natural and eliminates the 'hiding behind a forest of mic. stands,' which often separates performer from audience visually.

We use radio headsets for our Christmas Show (mostly in theatres and halls) and they are very liberating compared to stand mics. We tend not to use them in folk clubs because because it seems like overkill, although we _should_ because they impact on the performance much less than fixed systems. I have heard technophobes make adverse comments about people who _do_ use radio headset mics - such as: 'Why do they have all that posh, poncy equipment, what's wrong with _traditional_ microphones? Do they think they're pop stars?' In other words, people get used to one thing as the norm and are reluctant to change. It's more down to psychology than common sense.

You can't win whatever you do. If folks really don't believe anyone should plug in, there's little you can do to change their minds, and that's their prerogative.

In suitable rooms our preference is _always_ to do it without PA. (And acoustic performance has the advantage of being a lot less work with no stuff to haul around, put up and take down.) We use PA only when necessary and then we try to minimise its effect on the interaction between performer and audience. There's nothing nicer than someone coming up after a night with PA and saying that they'd forgotten we were amplified because the sound was so natural. That's what we're aiming for. I'd really like it if everyone with PA systems had the same aim. Wouldn't it be nice to go and listen to great bands like the Oyster Band and actually be able to hear their music without having to retreat to the ladies' room with your hands over your ears to reduce the volume to a level that your brain can assimilate. (Gents may of course prefer somewhere other than the ladies' room.)

For a new club, I'd assess the room and have a club PA only if you need it to ensure the whole audience can hear. If the acoustics are good and you decide to go completely acoustic, I'd not prevent performers from bringing their own system if they need it for balance, but tactfully say that the volume must be kept within reasonable limits and certainly not be cranked up as the night progresses.

Your audience should be encouraged to respect the music by not talking regardless of whether there's a PA or not, and for many performers, the links are as important as the music, so talking between songs is not good either.

If you have a naturally chatty audience, why not have a reasonably long break and finish at 10:30 and encourage them to stay around for another pint and maybe an impromptu sing/play afterwards.

"Again, I disagree... if you are doing spots and not singarounds PA is essential."

Cripes, I don't know what sort of environment you guys sing in up there. I don't know of any club round here which calls itself a folk club which provides a PA and virtually no artists bring one, for instance... none of these did when I saw them: Clive Gregson, Kate Rusby, Vin Garbutt, Threlfall Sisters, Pete Morton, Robb Johnson, Janet Russell, Show of Hands, Mundy-Turner, John Kirkpatrick, Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy, Artisan, Dave Webber & Anni Fentiman, Pete Coe...

Well, actually, it's easier to tell you who did: Chris While & Julie Matthews, ROAM (vocal mikes only, for balance), one or two "bands" using some electric instruments...

Oh, and I should add, that at the Otley Festival we have some acoustic concerts where the entire thing is done without PA, to audiences of up to a hundred..

You don't mention if you are intending to use a PA system. Depending on the size and location of the room, this can make or break a club. At one end of the scale is the PA set up to make every singer sound like a strangled chicken, interspersed with the cold, harsh howl of feedback. On the other end of the scale is the stage with no PA on one end of the room and a noisy bar at the other.

If you do use a PA, it is worth investing the time and effort to a good one that's easy to use - or to get a sound engineer who really does know how to set one up and mix it. Insist that guests arrive in time to sound check well before doors open to the audience. When the doors do open, make sure the sound check is over and have some appropriate background music playing. Use this music also during the interval and again after the last encore - a clear signal to the audience that the show is over. Beware of floor singers who want detailed adjustments to the sound at the beginning of their set - or who do not have any idea how to use a microphone (hopefully a good sound engineer will maintain control over that situation)

If you book guests who bring their own PAs, ensure it is OK with them for other artists to use it - there are still acts out there who can get a bit sniffy about that. But it is preferable to have your own system for consistency and control.

A PA is just a tool which should be used if necessary to enable an audience to better appreciate a performance. Of course, a folk PA should use valves and not transistors, and the speaker cones should be made of reconstituted horse manure and housed in oak cabinets cut from a tree which Bonny Prince Charlie once hid in.

Is it folk if you use a car to get to the gigs? Is it folk if you use electric lights? Is it folk if.... ad nauseum

Heard a lovely story tonight about someone sound-checking and getting very irate because the engineer wasn't responding to his instructions to pull the concertina down in the mix. Eventually the performer blew his cool and asked the engineer why he couldn't do anything about the volume. It was then that the engineer told him he'd switched the whole PA off ten minutes earlier.

We're in the 21st century & folkies are still having the PA debate FOR GOD'S SAKE WAKE UP, half of the reason most folk club audiences are in single figures is because when people go out to enjoy themselves they don't enjoy being told to shut up.

In which case they can save themselves a few quid by going somewhere there is no admission charge. Public bars encourage conversation and, best of all, entry is free. If I pay money for something and someone else prevents me from getting it then that is, at best, anti-social behaviour and, at worst, theft.

Purchase of a ticket does not only carry the privilege of admission, it carries the obligation to observe the conditions of entry laid down by the management. It is, in effect, a contractual agreement which says, "If you let me in I'll give you x amount of money and agree to behave in a manner appropriate to the proceedings".

Try going to the cinema, theatre, opera, orchestral concert, poetry reading, book launch or any of a trillion other places of public "entertainment" and start blethering with your companion(s) and see how long you last before a couple of large gentlemen physically eject you. Or, in the case of most performing artists, you find yourself on the receiving end of the verbal equivalent of a public flogging from the stage.

People pay me to play music they want to listen to. If they don't like what I do or don't want to listen to it they can leave and ask for their money back. I've never yet agreed to a clause in any of my contracts which states that I am employed to provide background musical accompaniment to conversation.

The presence or absence of PA plays no part in determining the presence or absence of f*ckwits whose definition of "their rights" is based on the presumption that nobody else has any.

"But WHY do people sit at the back!!?"

Worse are the people who insist on sitting right at the front directly in front of the speakers then spend the entire evening complaining that it's too loud and how it would be much better without the PA :)

Absolutely true story - a couple of years ago I did one gig where the room was tiny with a really nice lively ambience so, with my agreement, the engineer pulled out the vocal mic from the house mix and simply used the guitar mic to enhance the balance on songs where I was playing more gently. And someone complained that my voice was too loud and demanded that the PA be turned down. Too many people listen with their eyes.

One expects professionals or any experienced performers to have learned microphone technique and how to use a PA, but for an inexperienced floor singer this is a problem, and it's hardly the right attitude to apply the 'bad workman' proverb.

The other PA problem that is peculiar to folk clubs is the number of different performers (with different instruments etc.) who use the stage in succession.

And related to that: in a typical performing situation I switch between cello, concertina and melodeon, accompanying a singer who may also be playing a guitar, banjo or concertina (depending on who it is). That is no problem at all in a small acoustic club, but getting it right with a PA system can be a nightmare.

And is another reason why PA used properly is a benefit. It allows beautiful combinations of acoustic instruments to work together that are unbalanced in volume in real life. Like any quiet stringed instrument with a melodeon, for example. I recently sat in a radio studio listening to Cara Dillon sing with the two Lakepersons on piano and violin, not playing particularly loudly. Acoustically, you simply couldn't hear her voice in that room, and I was only about 4 metres from her. What was recorded (i.e. what would come over a PA) was quite wonderful when balanced by the microphones. It seems a shame to deny such fine musical evolution to the Luddite tendency.

"So what do you think opera singers do?"

Opera singers sing in concert halls which are generally acoustically superb, not rooms with thick carpeted floors, heavy drape curtains and thick flock wallpaper. And I don't know of any who do 200+ solo gigs per year where they sing non-stop for around two hours per night, getting straight up from the floor to perform cold, without any dressing room facilities to exercise in and do vocal warm up routines. The rider to an opera singer's contract would make any folk club organiser have a heart attack - it would cost more than most folk professionals' entire fee.

So provide me with the average opera singer's working conditions and environment and I'll sing without PA too.

I never used to bother about PA either until I lost my voice for 7 months in 1984 - and, yes, I do know how to handle my voice, thanks, I've earned my living with it for over 30 years. Apart from those 7 months, that is. The speech therapist and voice specialist who worked to get me back singing again informed me quite bluntly that, given the type of rooms I was singing in, if I still wanted to be singing in 20 years time I should refuse to work without PA. I took their advice and I'm still singing at full power 17 years later.

There's a f*ck of a difference between singing a couple of songs once or twice a week and singing in a wide variety of completely different spaces with variable acoustics for 2 hours every night for months on end and travelling huge distances between each gig. Go and do a two-month solo coast-to-coast tour in the USA or Australia singing at full power for a couple of hours every night without using PA and doing all your own driving then come back and let us hear what your voice sounds like.

I have an unusually large lung capacity and a voice which at its loudest is capable of projecting so as to shatter plate-glass windows if I want to so I don't need PA to make me audible. I use it, firstly, to protect my voice from the inevitable damage due to repeated strain of singing night after night in acoustically less-than-good venues, secondly, to allow me to sing softer passages more softly so as to maintain the dynamic range of the performance. When every note has to be bellowed fortissimo simply to overcome the problems of an acoustically dreadful lounge bar designed without any thought as to acoustic properties then there ain't much room for subtlety.

As to the problems you list as being caused by the presence of PA, those are up to the performer. I've never seen Vin Garbutt suffer from much lack of communication with his audience due to a PA and I've never seen people not sing along with Pete Seeger because he was using a mic.

Routine PA may not be a good thing, but if I was doing a tour or regular gigs as a singer and guitarist I would want to use my PA. First of all, it reduces the wear on vocal chords; secondly, it enables subtle and careful guitar work to be heard without having to be in the front row. Both aspects are freed from the need to consider projection and volume the most important objective - expression, phrasing, depth and control can be used.

I have the opposite view for sessions and singarounds. Using a PA for these adds nothing.

The PA should be of moderate volume, sound reinforcement rather than noise creation, and suited to the artist's needs. That's all. But speaking personally if I go somewhere without a PA that's 50 per cent of my repertoire ruled out. It's a 50 per cent which on the whole gets very little use at sessions, and it's the 50 per cent I most want to use in 'concert' situations.

Looking at the various comments that have been offered so far, I'd say you have to choose between being an unamplified, more traditional club, and having a PA in order to accommodate bands and performers who need or like one.

A PA almost invites your audience to be noisy and talk over or under it, and discourages them from joining in with choruses (which may or may not be what the performers want!). It also discourages those who are used to playing traditional music without pickups etc, and those who prefer to sing without a mic. Yes, of course there's not obligation to use the PA, but mixing amplified and acoustic acts often doesn't work. Once you get a PA set up, most of your floor spots will be guitarists, and the set-up will be best suited to bands with guitars. You're more likely to get music that's in the American/contemporary idiom.

Without a PA, you'll attract more traditional players and singers of British and Irish material. You'll get more people who are interested in participating rather than just performing. You're much more likely to have the makings of an impromptu band for the interval, if that's what you want. You can still attract big names as paid guests, but probably not certain bands and artists.

Me, I prefer the second type, but I have to say it may be easier to make a commercial success of the first type, because that sort of music is more accessible to the non-specialist who is used to the sound of pop and rock bands.

In either case, think about how you are going to cope with godawful floor singers/players, who can spoil either sort of club if given too much exposure. And how to encourage the ones who have potential. Roving poets, too, can turn up anywhere. I'd go along with whoever said that poetry belongs at a poetry reading, and that a folk club is not the place for poems, or showing your prize plants, or your holiday slides. (Except Les Barker, for whom I'll make an exception. I bet his holiday slides are great).

The main reasons I dislike PA is you can't hear the audience joining in on choruses and partly as a result, the PA distances the performers from the audience and it makes it much harder to get a good atmosphere.

If a PA is being used properly you shouldn't even know it's there, and none of the problems you list should occur. Trouble is that isn't usually what happens....

In our present pub we don't use PA. We have a cathedral quality room with a hard stone floor and 18ft high ceiling. It's awesome - we just make sure that fiddlers and box players stay sitting down, and to get the 'lift' which singers need, they can stand up. Same works for the guitar - just stand in the right place in the room!

"My position is that folk clubs and folk artists don't need mikes, they interfere with the true quality of the voice"

Right on - that explains why I don't own a single folk CD with decent vocals. Or any opera, or any...

What on earth kind of PA system are people talking about here? Rock band stuff? Bingo caller PA? 'Orrible old Shure 58s being swallowed by the singer for 'instant crooner' proximity effects? Not all PA is like that and surely to aim of a decent PA system to permit all members of the audience, wherever seated and however impaired of hearing, to enjoy a sound which is reasonably close to a audiophile recording. That does mean using slightly more expensive mics, good speakers, and keeping the gain levels down.

If you are going to take the above position on mics, then go the whole way. Folk singers don't need audiences, since the songs were never intended to be sung to 100 people in a club...

"Audiences do talk, so should organisers accommodate it more readily? One event I was involved with was deliberately organised on the basis that the audience would talk, so had a large PA to make sure the artists were heard."

The trouble with that approach is escalation - people talk because there is a PA anyway, and then they shout to be heard above it, and then the PA has to be louder etc.....

How about the approach introduced (I believe) by Colin and Karen Cater when they ran the Essex Singers Club? Have three parts to the evening instead of two, with two intervals. More time to have a chat with your friends and/or get another drink, less excuse to do same while the music is on.

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