VIBE – A platform for visually impaired musicians and producers

Since 2014 Drake Music has been working with the musician Peter Bosher to develop VIBE – a platform, springboard and showcase for visually impaired musicians and sound engineers. 

We received seed funding from Creativeworks London to run a pilot project and feasibility study into VIBE, in partnership with researchers at Queen Mary’s University of London. 

In this speech for the Visually Impaired Musicians Lives conference at the Institute of Education in March 2015, Peter describes his experiences in the music industry, and the development of VIBE so far:

VIBE – an edited extract of Peter Bosher’s talk given at the Visually Impaired Musicians’ Lives Conference, Institute of Education, London, on 11 March 2015

Peter Bosher - visually impaired musician and producerI often dread that moment where people introduce themselves at meetings, or even one to one. “So what do you do?” they ask. What do I do? I have worn so many hats that it’s hard to keep my head on straight: musician, trainer, Editor, project manager, I could go on—but basically, I’m a sound guy. I just love recording with musicians.

I first wrote to the BBC when I was eight to ask how I could get a job working in recording. They told me not to be silly. I wouldn’t see the red light. How right they were. I still can’t see the red light. So I kept on recording, sometimes my own music, but the thing I love to do best is recording other musicians, arranging and producing pieces and tracks until they sound great.

My pop idols are people like George Martin or Alan Parsons. I wanted to study sound recording and electrical engineering. “Don’t be silly,” they said. “How can a blind person manage all those hot soldering irons and different coloured wires to trip over and putting up mic stands and using all those knobs and meters and complicated visual displays?”

I ended up studying French and Philosophy at Oxford, where I spent most of my time playing in bands and ‘doing radio’ with the university broadcasting society and Radio Oxford. To fast forward through decades, during which I stubbornly kept on working on recording projects, first using sixteen-track tape, then gradually learning to go digital with talking computers, sequencing and recording software … fast forward again to 2003. I’m thinking, ‘now or never’, so I move heaven and earth to get on to the well-respected Tonmeister course in music and sound recording at Surrey University.

That was a great course and I very nearly got a year’s placement with the BBC as part of that, but there were swingeing financial cuts at the last minute. Instead I did finally get to work in a proper fully fledged studio at the Royal Academy of Music, which gave me some truly valuable experience.

Fast forward again to now: I’ve had little bursts of success with my work on a few commercial CD’s, and sound design and production for broadcast and theatre, but essentially not much has changed. They are still saying “don’t be silly.”

Levelling the Field

That’s surely quite enough about me, but over the past few years I fell to wondering: is this typical? Another message, along with the “don’t be silly” one, is that you, as a blind person, have to compete with sighted people on their terms, and in practice that means being ten times better than they are, as a sort of knock-down argument that proves to all and sundry that actually, yes you can do such-and-such a job even in the face of all those obstacles.

Now some of this applies to any type of work, excluding airline pilot or film editor, and let me remind you of that appalling statistic, three out of four visually impaired people of working age do not have a job. But surely, music and sound, these are fields where blind people should be, at least, on an equal footing, a level playing field?

So should you, as a blind person, accept that you have to be ten times better, and ten times more self-confident, articulate, pushy even, or do you think that we might need some extra help and support here and there? I don’t know the answer to this question.

When I was younger I might have said: “just get over it”. Most of my working life i have focused on solutions, often technological ones, but we are always playing catch-up, sprinting just to get to the starting line. How can we get to stroll nonchalantly on to the course? We need to up our game somehow. When I started talking about this with others, I discovered that, from the evidence, I wasn’t alone, and many, both blind and sighted, thought that something could, and should be done.

Last summer, Mary Paterson of Drake Music, which is an organisation that supports musicians with a range of disabilities, found us a small chunk of funding, from Creativeworks London, in collaboration with Dr Tony Stockman of Queen Mary University of london, to run a pilot project. The first thing we had to do was gather evidence. I thought I knew what the difficulties are and what people need, but was I right?

Regrettable but real

With help from RNIB and other organisations I contacted all the people I could to ask what they thought. Here are a few extracts from the replies I got back: besides things like “this is a great idea” “your idea is an excellent one.” and interestingly, “i have been forced to the conclusion that your idea is needed,” and many offers of help, we got this from a professional trained singer: “I find it hard to get paid work as I cannot sight-read anything without preparing it in advance. I also find it very difficult to travel to opportunities where paid or pro work might arise. I find it near impossible to fund ongoing training so am considering re-training …‘”.

From Claire: “careers advice always focused on “what can’t be done”. When it came to applying for jobs in studios, I was called a health and safety risk, so after a while of banging my head against a rock solid wall, i decided to re-think. I know I am going to need support when I’m ready to make the leap. I wanted to share my story because I want people to know that they aren’t alone with the struggles of finding work. They aren’t alone in feeling the hurt, despair and total worthlessness. I do want to say there will be a turning point, there has to be. I know it’s hard to stay positive but keep fighting because honestly, there is something to fight for.”

From Regina: I have often thought that it would be wonderful to gain support from a mentoring scheme—so that someone can hold my temerous hand!

From Iona:Main obstacles are lack of promotion skills and of funds to look for someone to take charge of these. My main challenge would be to establish a sensible social media presence. TO have a good artist brochure I can send to impresarios and to music stores to entice them to carry my CD. Further I find filling out forms and finding the right grants for artists not easily doable from the accessibility point of view.”

Out of all the people who responded to my questions, only one person actually questioned the need for VIBE. “What are these regrettable but real difficulties?” he asked.

So let me take a few moments to list them, and explain a little further what they are, so that we can see how they might be addressed:

    • Physical: Getting to venues with equipment or instruments: we can’t just bung everything in the car and drive where we need to go. We either need to get someone else with a car to help out, or, as I have often done, lugged my guitar through the streets, or on trains and buses. Try that with a harp.
    • Navigating in unfamiliar places: This one is huge, and not so much recognised. As soon as I’m in some room or hall I’ve never been before, I’m immediately stuck. I can’t go anywhere at all, to the toilet, outside for a breath of air, or around the stage to plug in my equipment or set it up, go and say hello to such-and-such…
    • Visual presentation: You might remember a recent news story about one of the Elgin marbles. These are a set of very ancient statues which we stole from the greeks many years ago. This particular one was a statuette of a river god, which for some bizarre reason we agreed to lend to the Russians. The curator being interviewed described it as having “great visual presence”, by which I think he meant it looked nice. But what about my visual presence?Even now, standing here before you, I have absolutely no idea what visual impression I am giving out. I hope to goodness I’m clean. My wife helped me pick clothes to wear. I know I have some sort of musical tie which some people like, but that’s about all. My dad rose hugely in my estimation when somebody told me he looked like a mad violinist! I might look like a mad violinist, or a chartered accountant, or a down-at-heel salesman, or a policeman on holiday. The point is, I have absolutely no idea, and if I ask six people, I get six different answers. Why can’t I wear socks with sandals? Why not this polo with those jeans? So how can I ever be confident when I’m playing in front of an audience that I don’t somehow look out of place with the rest of my ensemble, group, choir, band, whatever, and Am I even facing the right way?So much for visual presentation, but this impacts on my confidence, and also on my ability to judge what might make for a good youtube clip, or indeed a facebook profile, which leads me on to:
    • Communication: The conductor signalling when to start, the lead-singer giving a wink when they’ve decided to change the running order and point to the next cue … or, turning to the online world, social media. Facebook in particular is, to say the least, problematic. making and choosing images, and using the site itself is not a walk in the park. Some VI people are using it with some success, many more are completely at sea, which leads on to:
    • Accessibility: Setting up and using equipment and software which is inaccessible: This is another huge one but just a few examples: setting up pa systems without knowing the controls, using all sorts of recording equipment, mixing consoles, music keyboards, software itself, by which I mean the programmes used in recording, and to create, and view, music scores. Each one of these poses massive problems and obstacles. None of it is totally impossible, just very, very challenging, time-consuming and, very often, discouraging and frustrating.

Blind leading the blind

So what, can, we, do? That was the question and those were the issues which sparked off the idea for VIBE, so, finally, what is it? Well clearly it is a work in progress: the idea, the vision, if you will, is this:

If you are a musician who would welcome help and support in getting your music more widely heard, by having it professionally recorded, or by promotion through online platforms such as iTunes, Amazon and Youtube, soundcloud, audioboom, or via social networking like Facebook, and twitter …

Or, if you are a sound engineer or producer who would welcome more work and enjoy collaborating with others, both visually impaired and sighted,

Or, if you are interested in supporting, and helping to shape, the development of this work,then you may be interested in the VIBE project.Logo for VIBE

VIBE will be a platform, or springboard, or launchpad. Keep those words in mind, because above all, it is about support: supporting each other, and arranging support from whoever else is willing to collaborate. It may even be a showcase in its own right, a little like a record label, but that may not be such a good idea as actually supporting people into using existing mainstream showcases. Either way, it will promote, demonstrate and share excellence among blind and visually impaired musicians, sound engineers and producers.

The vision of VIBE is a recognisable and identifiable resource: a place that collects together examples of excellent musicians in all genres, and I can’t emphasise too much that it is about good musicians, whether that be hip-hop, dance-music, kowali, jazz or opera. It will help us overcome the real difficulties we face in promotion, marketing and accessibility.

VIBE will also be an online and offline peer support network, using face-to-face meetings as well as social networking and online resources such as an email group, Facebook and Twitter. At the heart of the project is excellence in performance and production, driven by visually impaired and blind people with the right skills, in collaboration with others wherever needed.

Next steps

We held our first meeting of potential supporters and participants, with around twenty people, in November last year. The meeting had two purposes: to flesh out just what people need in the way of support, and to brainstorm how that might be achieved. We identified two strands of work.

The first, is to set up a peer-support network, in other words, a group with common purpose, knowledge and interests. Thomas Armitage, the blind gentleman who founded what became RNIB said that there were some situations where the blind leading the blind was the best solution.

We might follow the model of the British Computer Association of the Blind (BCAB), which works through real-world, face-to-face events, usually based around concrete, useful content such as seminars or training courses, combined with a social element, meals, get togethers in pubs for example, where people get the chance to swap tips. This is combined with online networking through a website, twitter, and importantly an email group.

The second strand is about concrete practical support: what actually is it that is missing, that VIBE could provide? The suggestion to emerge from our meeting of interested musicians and supporters was for some sort of resource base, which would act as an intermediate, a go-between, a springboard. What I think we should do is help bridge the gap between musicians and sound people on the one hand, and the music industry which generally doesn’t know about the issues. It’s almost never that they don’t care – they simply do not know.

This is still a very tall order, but we have started by talking to some people who know the industry, and we are making headway in finding the right people to give us the connections we need. We have also started working with some of those musicians to find out exactly what each one needs in the way of support, for example getting their portfolios online to attract new audiences, draw them to the attention of commercial promoters and agencies, and help build social media profiles.

Other examples of things we plan to do: are to find people who are able to act as guides, support workers, helpers, call them what you will, but people who can “be your eyes” maybe even use some social haptics, in some of those situations I’ve mentioned. These might be volunteers, or paid through the “Access to Work” scheme. Make recordings involving blind engineers and producers, to build musicians’ portfolios.

Our website, www.vibeworks.net, will serve as a focus, somewhere you can go to find out the latest developments.

And, we need your help with this: There is no high command, and it could just fizzle out if not for your support. We need your views, and your ideas for other solutions, and for how to help get funding to make this work sustainable.

Please, join us.

Start by joining the email list, talk to me over lunch or later on. email me privately if you prefer: peter@soundlinks.com.

VIBE depends fundamentally on your getting involved. If you have been, thank you for listening.

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