"If you do things that people find valuable, they will pay"
Interview and photos by Dawn
If you're not yet familiar with Hope & Social, they have been variously referred to as 'anthemic' (Q magazine), 'one of the UK's top five live bands' (The Independent) and 'smash-your-head-into-the-wall-brilliant' (Entertainment Weekly). All of these are accurate, but perhaps the best way to describe them is a breath of fresh air in a music business increasingly dominated by world weary cynics and miseries. They are a band limited only by their imagination; a band who refuse to sit and dwell on the many negatives and pitfalls of the internet age of music, instead turning them to their advantage and revelling in the freedom and the wonder and the endless possibilities of their chosen art form. And of course, most importantly, they just make great music. I met keyboard/organ maestro Ed Waring in Stockton for a chat about the band, their music and the countless amazing events they get involved in.
For an example of just how many pies Hope & Social have their combined fingers in, today alone they have already played a short set at Sound It Out records, given a matinee performance of the Bring the Happy show at the town's prestigious Arc venue and have another performance still to come at Arc this evening. And that's before you even mention past events organised by the band and involving the fans - such as living room gigs, Come Dine With Us evenings, a Band Anyone Can Join at Grassington Festival and an open top bus adventure to the seaside – or the monthly Crypt Covers sessions where in a day they arrange, produce and record a collaborative cover suggested by fans. I should probably feel honoured that Ed managed to squeeze Record Overplayed into his clearly manic schedule!
"It's all about trying to do stuff that's unique and special," explains Ed. "With all the eventy stuff we've done – like the Come Dine With Us, like the thing we've just done in Grassington - they're always amazing experiences for us. Sometimes it's a load of work but it's always an amazing experience and it's worth doing just for that." Let's face it, how could it not be amazing when you end up performing on an open top bus? Ed laughs: "That was a marvellous day, that was an absolutely lovely day. What happens is, we do these things and generally they come out of a pissed idea – we're having a drink and somebody goes 'I'd love to be on an open top bus like the Shadows in Summer Holiday, that'd be amazing' and everyone goes 'that would be amazing!' and then some of them stick." He laughs, "And they don't go away and then we go 'shall we do that?' and then the second that we all say yes this whole world of pain opens up – 'so where do we get a bus..?' They're just marvellous things. I don't think a single one of them's actually made money but they generate a legend and they're a big signifier of our ethos.
"So we're in a situation now where some of the other stuff that we're getting to do, people are funding us to try and replicate that kind of event. The organiser approached us after the open top bus trip and we did a public transport busk to Grassington from Leeds with 70 people in tow to do a gig which was just a crazy day. And then she asked to do something bigger this year and she managed to find the money/funding for us to spend two months in the town. And so because we did the first thing that made nothing, two years later we got paid to have this lovely, lovely two month experience with 40 strangers."
The band's love of music and enthusiasm for what they do is evident in everything they talk about, and Ed is particularly passionate about the idea of people getting out there and doing what they love: "As a creative in today's environment there are so many tools available. You can have the same gear that anyone has - you can make any album that you want to make. It's the same for visual art, it's the same for filmmaking - the price of admission is so low you can do anything. So what you need to do then is go 'right I can do anything – I'm gonna do the thing that's in my heart' and the worst thing that can happen is that you end up with something where you go 'I'm really proud of that'. And then the best things that can happen, well there's loads of things." Like playing on an open top bus, I suggest? Ed smiles. "You can play on an open top bus, you can be in a situation like me where a third of my yearly wage is coming from this thing just because I love it."
This fits in nicely with the fact that Hope & Social's guitarist Rich once told me that he 'gets paid to be enthusiastic'. Ed nods - "That's pretty much true with Rich" – then grins, "Well he can play guitar a bit but mainly he's just enthusiastic."
A Teessider born and bred, and fiercely proud of my Stockton roots, I ask Ed what it was like to finally visit Sound It Out, and how the band first discovered the documentary about it. Sound It Out is the last remaining independent record shop in Teesside and was brought to the attention of the rest of the UK thanks to a wonderful documentary about the store, its staff and its customers, made in 2011 by Jeanie Finlay. "It was lovely being in the shop," says Ed. "I bought a t-shirt. Rich spent 50 quid on vinyl. I reckon they must make loads of money off the bands who play.
"I think I saw the film first, or we found out about it and one of us saw it and went 'that's amazing'. We all loved it – it's just such a beautiful film. For me, it's about the people of Stockton and it's about a record store and it's about Tom and everyone who runs the record store, but fundamentally it's about how important music is in people's lives and that's something that we really feel. We have a naive belief in the power of music to make life better."
I tell him I don't think it's naive at all and he laughs. "Sometimes it feels naive. So we did a gig in Brighouse where we showed the film as our support band. It was a cool venue / cafe bar/ art space and we got 70 people in and we showed the film and then we played and yeah we just loved it. It was surreal when we first drove into Stockton we were all like, 'Look there's the high street!' and then to go into the shop and, 'We're in the shop!'. I was talking to Dave [from Sound It Out] at the show and I actually said to him 'I know this sounds weird but I'm slightly starstruck standing next to you'. I dunno – I've seen the film four or five times now and every time it gets me. It's an amazing thing. And it's an amazing thing for Stockton to have for loads of reasons. They're doing an instore like every two weeks now and some of the people are amazing – you'd pay 30 quid to go and see them, never mind be stood two metres away from them."
One of the things Hope & Social are known for is offering their music on a Pay What You Want or Pay What You Can basis. Their albums are all available to download online and you can choose how much money you want to give the band in return – the minimum being absolutely nothing. The downloads also come with text files instructing the listener to share the music with friends, make copies and generally pass it around as the band believe that the most important thing is to get their songs out there. They say that in 2009 they made more money from giving music away than in all of the previous ten years of selling it in shops for a fixed price.
Ed explains: "It's not a magic bullet. So it's not like you go 'it's pay what you want' and people go 'have all my money!'" he laughs. "That's not how it works. You've got to focus - if you're an artist of any kind I think you've got to focus on just doing great work and that should be your driving force. That should be what you spend as much of your effort on as possible. And if you're doing great work, good stuff will come. And some of that might be money, and some of that might be other stuff. And by making the decision that essentially 'I'm going to give music away', it means you've got to concentrate on other stuff – you've got to think about other things and spend your time on the art – 'it's just gonna be free anyway, it doesn't matter.' A guy that we know called Steve Lawson - he's @solobasssteve on the internet - he describes it really, really well. He describes the transaction as 'it's a gratitude payment; it's a thank you'. It's not that someone desperately wants it – well sometimes it is that they desperately want to have that object. But we've got a lot of... we lovingly call them 'crazies'. They're just lovely, they're pure fans and they love music. When they come to a gig they come over afterwards and they look at the tray and they are visibly deflated when there's nothing new to give you money for. And really often they'll buy something again. And they'll go 'well I'll buy that – I'm gonna give it to my friend.' There's one guy in Hartlepool and he used to come and buy the same album twice at every gig. But you've got to earn that. You've got to give stuff out. So by focussing on making stuff good, making people's experience really good, it somehow works. And it's a really thrilling experience and it's a really positive experience. It's tremendous. The first time that somebody paid 50 quid it was like, 'What? This makes no sense!' And then you start to understand that it does make sense.
"There's a lot going around about 'the internet is killing music' - like there was a David Byrne article in the Guardian. And I just found it really misinformed - I found it really simplistic. It totally ignores how much opportunity there is for anybody making art right now. Opportunities for sharing, learning, support and exposure. And it totally ignores the fact that these changes in the way people consume music are customer driven. It's a totally different, connected world we live in and people don't want to consume music like they did ten years ago! When we started Hope & Social we made the decision to make everything Pay What You Want and the reason we did that was that any person almost regardless of technical knowledge can get any music they want for free, but people still choose to buy music. We had a lot of conversations about it - we've got some very clever friends who have really good ideas and they got involved in these conversations - and we thought, well if you can have it for free but somebody wants to still pay, let's just make it available for free. Let's make it as easy as possible for people to have that music. And rather than concentrating on 'we've got to make sales', let's try and build a tribe. Let's build a community - because when you've got a tribe or a community you've got a power, and one of the things about a tribe is that a tribe looks after itself. And that is kind of how it works. Like Dave [from Sound It Out] this afternoon - we gave a couple of tickets to the shop and Dave came, and I was really excited that he was there and that he said how much he loved the music so I gave him a CD. And he gave me a fiver. I was like 'no, no' and he said 'no look, I want to give you that' and that's how the transaction works – if you do things that people find valuable, they will pay, because that's the meaning of valuable."
It's evident in their shows and in their enthusiasm just how much Hope & Social love, live and breathe music, but I'm intrigued as to whether being in the band is really as much fun as it appears. As ever, Ed is relentlessly upbeat: "The making music side of it is pretty much always fun. There's a lot of hard work and a lot of tiredness and a lot of late nights and a lot of not seeing partners. Nobody really says to you, 'Yeah you're going to be in a band, you're going to have to spend sometimes three days a week in a spreadsheet doing maths and being organised like a grownup'. But we try to keep the making music side of it as separate as possible so that's fun. That's got to be fun. If that stopped being fun then we'd stop.
"We've got loads of plans boiling under at the moment – too many plans really. We're getting to a point where we've done an album a year and we're just taking a little break from that. We're just starting to work out when we're going to do the next album and we're quite hungry to do that and then we've got all this other stuff going on, like the Bring the Happy thing. We're starting to book dates in 2015 – they're just starting to come through - and that's hopefully going to go international, we've got some crazy places interested. We wanna do the Crypt Covers thing, we wanna do at least one big event, there's some crazy stuff that we've applied for funding for, some ideas that we can't wait to hear back on. It's... what was the question?" He laughs. "Yeah, we just hope that we can just keep having wonderful experiences, really."
So there you have it. Hope & Social – big tunes, big hearts and blue jackets; dispensing fun, energy and mayhem in equal measures. But as you'll discover, there is so much more to them than just the music. It can't be a coincidence that a band rivalled only by Bellowhead in terms of the utter joy they deliver onstage are involved in the Bring the Happy show ('an attempt to map the moments and memories of happiness of the UK and beyond') with Invisible Flock. Hope & Social are a rare, uplifting, truly lovely thing in the music world. Andrew Dubber hit the nail on the head by saying, "essentially, their key ingredient is to make sure they make people's lives a bit better every time they do anything at all." You just need to look at the smiles on the faces of the crowds at their shows to realise that they really, really do.
Huge thanks to Ed and to Hope & Social. Visit hopeandsocial.com for more info, music.hopeandsocial.com to listen to and buy their music, invisibleflock.co.uk/bringthehappy for more on the show, sounditoutrecords.co.uk for the very last surviving vinyl record shop in Teesside and sounditoutdoc.com for information about the wonderful Jeanie Finlay documentary.