On a mildly surreal drive up the M6 into the Lake District on Friday night, my old friend Andy Victor and I were discussing the state of popular music. Andy - a terrific songwriter himself - commented that the internet is increasingly allowing excellent artists to gain access to their audiences without relying on the traditional distribution and promotion channels. The downside is that it's probably even harder for talented musicians even to make a decent living, let alone become rich and famous (though the best ones rarely did that anyway). The upside is that it's liberating artists to make the music they want to, without having to chase the elusive phantom of 'commercial success'.
Not entirely by coincidence, this conversation took place on our way to a performance by the Scottish musician, Michael Marra. For those of you who haven't heard of Marra (which I'm guessing will be most of you), he's a terrific songwriter. His subject matter is quirky and, for the most part, very Scottish (very Dundonian, actually) but his songs are witty, moving and beautifully melodic. His voice is, I suppose, a bit of an acquired taste, but I acquired it years ago and now it's a major part of his charm. His influences range from Bob Dylan and Randy Newman to Johnny Mercer and Frank Loesser, but he's very much his own talent. He's also, as he demonstrated on Friday night, a superb entertainer, his excellent songs linked by a delightfully dry and meandering Scottish wit.
Marra's too idiosyncratic ever to trouble the mainstream too much, but he carries on ploughing his unique furrow - writing songs, fiction and musical plays, releasing a CD every now and then, performing. He has an excellent website which enables him to keep in touch with his audience (and from which you can buy CDs and downloads if you want to find out more). Friday's performance was in a village market hall in Cumbria. We eventually arrived after negotiating not just the usual Friday motorway traffic but also, bizarrely, a police roadblock on the B road just outside the village (we speculated that they were holding back the hordes of fans). The organiser, who didn't herself know Marra's work, was slightly bemused that we'd driven all the way from Manchester (or, in Andy's case, Nottingham). After she'd seen Marra perform, she understood why.