First published in fRoots magazine, June 2015 (issue 384)

In The Tradition

The Musical Traditions web site and label are among the great roots music resources. Jo Breeze hears their story from proprietor Rod Stradling.

Musical Traditions has been running, in something close to its current form, since 1996 when Rod Stradling took on the editorship. It is an online magazine, a record label, and a publishing house, run entirely from the home of Rod and his wife Danny.

Musical Traditions produces recordings of traditional singers and musicians – like Walter Pardon, Lizzie Higgins, and Cyril Poacher – wherever possible providing the complete recorded repertoire rather than an editorialised selection. It’s less a competitor of major labels like Topic Records than it is complementary; after Topic included an album of traditional Irish singer Sarah Makem as part of Voice Of The People, Musical Traditions produced As I Roved Out, a three-CD set including 40 of her previously unpublished recordings. Musical Traditions concentrates on “bringing music which might never achieve a commercial publication to the small audience which values it”, and it produces music – and writing – that might otherwise never be publicly available. The magazine exists, these days, as a website, with pages of detailed reviews, articles, discographies, letters and sound files.

In 1983, Keith Summers first published Musical Traditions as a print magazine. It ran to twelve editions before folding in late 1994, in part as a result of the financial pressure of paying for upfront printing costs. During that time, though, Summers produced a magazine that attracted international attention for its eclecticism and intelligent engagement, with a first edition that covered music from Armenian musician Reuben Sarkisian to traditional Norfolk singer Walter Pardon.

Rod says “I didn’t know Keith at the time, when he started the magazine. The reason I got involved was that I’d been to the Carnevale at Ponte Caffaro a couple of times, and I had written what I thought was a really good article about it to go in number thirteen, but number thirteen never came into being. I’d got into computing because Danny had gone to university, and we got a very basic word processor. I also had a business selling accordeons that involved setting up a website, so when Musical Traditions 13 never came into being I knew enough about it to know that I could do this at virtually no cost. So I went to see Keith and spoke to him about it, and he said yes, go ahead, wonderful, and gave me all the stuff that would have gone into issue thirteen. I had a website on AOL, put it all together, and it went live on Christmas Eve 1996.”

It rapidly expanded, and required more space and a more professional website. The reason, Rod says, that Musical Traditions could continue to maintain a commercial website was because they started selling records. Keith had released eight CDs while he was running Musical Traditions, and when Rod looked into continuing this, he soon realised that “having them done professionally was completely out of the question. Even Topic has a warehouse full of stuff that they haven’t sold. As a single individual you can’t possibly go down that road, so I’ll make the bloody things one at a time.” 

He started with a double CD of traditional singer Bob Hart, made up partly from recordings made by Rod and Danny in around 1968, and partly from Bill Leader’s recordings made a year or so later, never released on Topic. The initial CD orders were literally one at a time, printing out the booklets and creating CDs as orders came in. Later, as the reputation of the Bob Hart CD had spread, Rod released a Cyril Poacher CD, Plenty Of Thyme, which, he says, “because people had heard about the Bob Hart one, sold rather more quickly and in rather greater numbers, because they’d realised it wasn’t just a flash in the pan.” 

These days, Musical Traditions is still run from the Stradlings’ home in Stroud, and Rod says “I have anywhere between seven and one copies of a CD on the shelf, and when I get down to one I make another six. Or fewer, for the old stuff that only sells two or three copies a year these days. The Cyril Poacher one, not the most approachable of singers, is still my best-seller. 

“I’m very, very surprised, and very pleased; he’s a wonderful singer. As I’ve made the records, they make a profit, a very small profit, but nonetheless the profit has paid for the magazine, the website, the hosting, all that. It’s nothing to write home about but it doesn’t lose money, and it means I can make things that I know are going to sell very very few copies, and they do. But nonetheless if something comes up that I think is worth doing, I can do it.”

I ask what space Musical Traditions occupies that print magazines can’t. “You said the word,” says Rod. “Space. You’ve seen ten-page reviews. Nobody can print a ten-page review – with sound clips. I can put as many sound clips in as the author wants. We’ve had whole books up there before, prior to them being taken up by normal publishers. Anything goes.”

In recent years, Musical Traditions has also begun producing a series of CD-ROM books, digital books with embedded sound files. As Musical Traditions is already both an online magazine and a record label, the option to produce this kind of digital book allows some blurring of format boundaries – whether you’re reading an online article with embedded sound clips, a digital book with sound clips, or an album with detailed digital notes. For a label that specialises in producing detailed and comprehensive recordings of traditional music, providing such a breadth of formats is not only a gift for researchers and musicians, it may also point the way to a possible future.

For an organisation that produces so much digitally-available material, it might seem as though the logical next step would be to provide downloadable MP3s. But Rod is firmly against this, saying “It turns the music into a mere commodity, does not ensure that the complete repertoire of a performer is delivered, nor that the booklet would ever be read by the purchaser. It would not afford the performers the respect I believe they richly deserve.” 

He is, however, wondering about different ways of presenting the work of Musical Traditions – and the recent CD-ROM releases are, he thinks, a possibility. “It struck me that I could very easily present the contents of a CD booklet like a very long article, with the links to all the audio files as full-length MP3s. Now I do know that MP3s are not as high resolution as CD audio – but since almost none of the 50-odd-year-old sound files I get to use are remotely ‘hi-fi’ in the first place, I don’t believe that any listener would be able to tell the difference.” This would mean releases could fit on one CD, and would reduce printing, shipping and manufacture costs.

Like so many record labels and magazines, Musical Traditions is working through a drop in sales in recent years. This is, Rod thinks, partly due to the recession, but also to a sea change in the way people approach folk music. Despite the current resurgence of interest, Rod suggests it only goes so far for many people. 

“They have, I think, never ever listened to a traditional singer or player. They think if you’ve got a good complete performance played very well or sung very tunefully and correctly, what more do you need? For a song that caught my attention, that I would like to sing, the first thing I’d do is look for other versions of it; see if there are other bits and pieces that I want to slot in and move about and change. But I have a feeling that people think ‘oh, this is beautiful, I will try and reproduce this’, not ‘this is a song 90 percent of which I would like to sing, but what else is there?’ People seem not to think about songs in that way. A song you sing should be personal to you I think; I don’t see how you can convincingly perform it to other people in a way that really communicates, unless it’s absolutely real to you. So this is, I think, one of the reasons why records of traditional singers and musicians are not selling anything like as well as they used to; because there’s been a change of mindset.”

The importance of personal discovery is something Rod sticks resolutely to; when I attempt to ask if he would recommend one record in the Musical Traditions catalogue for people to listen to, he is already shaking his head and pulling a face before I even finish the question. “No,” he says firmly. “No. I mean I know records that I like; I know records that are important. But no.” He’s hardly shy of making recommendations; our conversation is peppered with suggestions and pauses for CDs to be played, and when I get home I look up Danny Diamond, an Irish fiddler of whom Rod spoke in glowing terms. But the idea of making some kind of universal recommendation relies on criteria so broad as to be evidently meaningless. “I don’t see my job as selling it or trying to flog it;” Rod later explains. “It’s there, I’m very very pleased when people buy it, but I’m not trying to shove it down anybody’s throat.”

Musical Traditions, according to Rod, can publish thinking, writing and music that aren’t featured in more mainstream publications – “or when they are”, he says, “they tend to be just descriptive; 200 words means something like 60 percent of the review is quotes from the booklet. It tells a reader what it is, but it doesn’t go remotely beyond that, which I think is a shame.” It doesn’t start a discussion, I suggest. “Exactly” says Rod firmly. “Exactly. Which I hope is what the best of the reviews in Musical Traditions do; they certainly do when they’re critical!” Indeed, the letters to Musical Traditions are extremely well-informed, and sometimes offer more-than-lively correspondence. “When I write reviews,” he later says, “I always try to put in, not something critical, but something I hope is thought-provoking or might lead readers on to thinking more for themselves.”

The value of the work done by Musical Traditions is precisely this – leading people on to further thought. This isn’t music to have as background noise or articles to skim over; this is work that requires attention and engagement, and at its best it is the beginning of a discussion. It’s about laying everything out and not necessarily expecting agreement or consensus, but letting readers and listeners discover treasures and make connections for themselves. Long may it continue.