Simon Godfrey's Letter From America

The clouds are low in the sky here in Philly, with a gentle rain blanketing the streets in a quiet, sullen grey.

It’s what we Brits call a sunny day.

I can’t speak for everybody on my street but I for one am in a magnificent mood. Three astounding but entirely distinct progressive shows have occurred these past few days. Indie proggers The Decemberists appear to have found their mojo again and gifted the crowd at The Academy Of Music with a spellbound set brimming with depth and vigor. Sufjan Stevens, experimental troubadour and the undisputed master of the listenable Christmas song (weird I know but it’s true), poured his shattered heart out to a receptive crowd, leaving everyone simultaneously exhausted yet profoundly fulfilled by the experience.

The last of the three was Public Service Broadcasting, an outfit which is probably the most ‘English’ sounding of all the contemporary progressive acts out there (perhaps even more so than Big Big Train), who played to a packed house here in Philly’s Center City at The World Café Live.

PSB probably left the biggest impact upon me, not simply because they are an incredible duo to witness live and are fellow South Londoners, but also because they managed that increasingly rare achievement for almost any up and coming British act in these modern times; they succeeded in touring the United States of America.

Hard to believe I know but once there was a time when almost all the UK acts we know so well today were struggling artists, known to just a select few and clinging on to their very existence by the grace of a fecund live scene outside the UK. Italy sustained Genesis, France kept Gong alive, and naturally you could always be big in Japan.

For many however, it was America that helped them discovered worldwide success. Yes, Floyd, Crimson, Tull and many more, all have the US to thank for not only keeping their dream alive but securing their place in music history.

America seems to be made for UK artists. We speak the same language (almost) and the music culture is incredibly curious and ready to listen to British bands. Even the FM and college radio scene which many people would have you believe were dead and buried in our internet age, still thrives with an active audience, voracious for new and interesting progressive music.

So why is the US not over-run all the time with UK artists plying their trade to audience on this side of the pond? The answer lies primarily in money and red tape. Of course it is. Almost everything nowadays comes down to both tedious trolls, lurking under the bridge that joins the two worlds together.

First , the music industry is not the beast it once was. We live in the Spotify age, where artists looking to identify and break into new markets have entirely different financial and logistical obstacles to surmount compared to yesteryear. Sourcing money for new talent is now a complicated business in a world where the sheer ubiquity of bedroom artists/bands makes it harder and harder to find that one genius needle in the growing haystack of mediocrity.

You can have all the enthusiasm and energy in the world but touring needs cash, time and the prospect of at least some return on your investment. The hard reality is that today, those with the resources to make such things happen are a lot more conservative in their aspirations than they once were.

The second and probably defining reason why there has been a huge drop-off in the number of UK acts touring the US today has been the paperwork involved to enable artists to travel and play to American audiences.

When once a band could count upon the label to call up its US counterpart and organize the relevant travel visas, and then gleefully leap upon a Trident ‘widowmaker’ Jet in order to ply their trade to America’s hippest and wildest cool cats, we now live in a world where personal interviews at actual Embassies have to be arranged, background checks are undertaken and form filling has become an art form.

This does not make for great documentary tour footage on YouTube. Believe me, I’ve tried. It’s best to stick to the old favourites of tour bus shots and lighting your farts.

Now I totally get that these days, any f*ckwit can attempt to board a plane with a bonkers ideology and a pound of homemade high explosive shoved up their arse but the price paid by the innocent is a world increasingly devoid of musical and cultural diversity.

I was speaking to girl at a live show a few weeks back and she commented that ‘After all these years of seeing Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, I was the first British artist she had ever seen live on stage.’

Even though that was really cool for yours truly and she particularly liked my hat, from a wider perspective that is pretty bloody sad.

This is why seeing acts like Public Service Broadcasting play here in the States is an encouraging sign. My hope is that this won’t be an isolated occurrence and perhaps alongside festivals like RoSfest who take on board a lot of the admin legwork for UK acts and the crowdsourcing that brought Marillion back to these shores, American audiences might once again enjoy the delights of the beats of Blighty.

If that does happen, I’ll applaud my fellow Brits but will probably need a more impressive hat to compete.