In 2009, having spent much of the preceding two decades playing in solo format, singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole decided to return to the band format that had originally swept him to public and commercial prominence in the 1980s. Back in the day, Lloyd Cole And The Commotions released a series of critically acclaimed albums, including Perfect Skin , Rattlesnakes and Easy Pieces . Performing solo allowed Cole an added degree of intimacy with his audience; it was also contributing to a level of comfort that Cole felt needed to be arrested. “The reason I decided to do the ensemble is that I felt I was getting too slick,” Cole explains. “I’d been through my entire catalogue, and re-arranged it all, and I needed to do something different.”
Cole enlisted the assistance of Mark Schwaber and Mark Cullen, and christened his new outfit The Small Ensemble. Having spent the better part of the last two years touring with The Small Ensemble – the trio’s Australian debut starts next week – Cole is still equivocal on the benefits of solo versus band performance. “I think that’s a bit like asking what my favourite songs are from an egomaniacal point of view,” Cole replies. “It’s great to perform solo, because the relationship with the audience is so strong. But being with other musicians on stage is less rewarding – though because you’re not alone, there tends to be less interaction with the crowd. Out of necessity, playing with a band is more staged, but at the same time it has more depth to it.”
Early on in The Small Ensemble’s existence, Cole described himself as learning ‘rudimentary’ banjo. He’s since delegated banjo duties to Cullen, with his own attention focused on acoustic guitar. “My banjo playing has been de-prioritised since making the last record [Broken Record],” Cole explains. “Matt plays a bit of banjo, so there’s not really any reason for me to play it on stage. However, I’ve been thinking recently introducing ukulele into the band – I quite like the sound a ukulele can bring to the music,” he grins.
In 2010 Cole released his latest record, Broken Record. Faced with mainstream music industry indifference, and the associated dysfunctional business model, Cole took the risky step of inviting his loyal fan base to contribute to the funding of a record they hadn’t even heard yet. “Once I decided to make this particular record, I realised it wasn’t going to be cheap,” Cole says. “I had live musicians, and people coming in to play from overseas. I was offered some money to make the record from a German record company (Tapete), but that was only going to cover about half the cost of making the record. So I told my fans that they could help me out with the record – a record they hadn’t heard. And they did – we raised about $32,000,” Cole points out.
Cole had already embraced the relative intimacy of the on-line fan community with the establishment and maintenance of his website. His website (lloydcole.com) has now been expanded to include sales of Cole’s new records, the occasional limited release live recording, merchandising, as well as Cole’s detailed weblog of his recording and touring exploits. “The first version of my website had volunteers working on it,” he points out. “That made it clear that it was possible to do it – and it’s easier with web 2.0. I suppose there is a community in the sense of people helping out.”
Cole’s observations on the changes to music business models, and the response of major labels to those models, are particularly interesting. In the 1980s, Cole was signed to Polydor (now owned by Universal), which continues to hold the rights to his back catalogue. “I have almost no control over my back catalogue,” Cole admits. “The main problem with Universal is that they’re dysfunctional in that way – if they can’t make a million dollars out of a deal, then they’re not interested,” he says.
Cole notes during his initial negotiations with Universal to facilitate the release of his 2009 boxset, Cleaning Out The Ashtrays, Universal wanted to allow the boxet to be downloaded in iTunes. “In the end we put it out just as a physical product – it only sold 400 or 500, but each of those cost $50 each. My German record company understood that, and helped me out,” he nods.
Cole is sanguine about the difficulties in maintaining a life as a professional musician. “Finding ways to get your product to people isn’t always easy,” he admits. Cole acknowledges the support of Tapete, which has been happy to allow Cole to release various ad hoc live records, even at a superficial commercial disadvantage to the label’s commercial interests. “My German record company can see the benefit of giving up their rights in order for me to make a better record.”
As for other lessons he’s learnt in his 27 years as a professional musician, Cole seizes on his indulgence of supporting technicians as something he’d do differently again – and a lesson he’s determined to pass onto his children. “We had two guitar technicians for two guitarists when we had the Commotions – we could have saved $30,000 a year if we’d only had one,” he points out. “I see young bands going on tour these days, and managing to turn a profit into a loss, just by things like that.
“My son is a musician, so I won’t let him do that – I’m not sure how I’ll do that, but I will,” Cole laughs.
Publication: Beat Magazine
Publication date: 12/02/11