BLOG: PHATAS announce captioning at all future shows

Posted on 19.11.2015

BLOG: PHATAS announce captioning at all future shows

It's fair to say music changed my life.  I remember being in hospital when I was ten years old in rather a lot of pain from one of the many operations I had around that time, and hearing REM's “Everybody Hurts” on the radio.  It comforted me and calmed me in a way that absolutely nothing else did.  Even now, I still well up every time I hear it.

In my teens I spent a lot of time trying to understand what it meant to have a disability.  A small village such as the one I grew up in is a tough place to be different and reading the NME and Melody Maker, and listening to the Evening Sessions, John Peel and Mark & Lard was how I managed to find out that there was a whole world beyond my horizons and whole scenes of people who thought being different was okay.   Listening to music was the way I began to understand my emotions and then writing songs became an outlet for me to put things I couldn't express into words.

If there was one thing that mattered to me more than music, it was lyrics.  I loved the way that bands like Suede and Belle & Sebastian wrote songs that seemed to inhabit their own worlds filled with characters and stories far more exciting than anything I saw in my own life.  I loved the way that the Manic Street Preachers wakened my interest in politics (albeit in a massively vague, ill-defined and self-righteous away).  I loved the way that the Smiths, Pulp and Hefner turned self-deprecation and stories of human frailty into something brilliant.  I was writing lyrics long before I was able to play an instrument.  When I first ventured into playing songs live, I had a guitar I couldn't play, a voice I scarcely knew how to use and I'm pretty sure the fact I could tell a decent story through the songs was the only reason audiences didn't pelt me with rotten vegetables or worse.

Eventually a guy called Ian Button, who'd played in Death in Vegas, liked my lyrics enough to start producing my music and through that I formed a band called Paul Hawkins & The Awkward Silences and started playing gigs.  We played Latitude, we played Swn and we played a lot of gigs to empty rooms and a few gigs to full ones.   After a few years we played a gig for Club Attitude supporting Summer Camp and I found out about Attitude is Everything.  Eighteen months later I started working for them as the Festival Project Manager and here I am now.

I love working for Attitude is Everything because I really believe in the importance of what we do.  I believe access to live music isn't some sort of luxury or trivial concern but utterly vital in order to ensure Deaf and disabled people can participate fully in society.  When I was younger and my friends all went to Glastonbury but I couldn't, it was utterly devastating for my self-esteem and sense of independence.   By the same token, when I went to Glastonbury for the first time this year and found the facilities had improved to the point I could camp there without problems, it was one of the most overwhelmingly brilliant moments of my life.  Even in my thirties, and these days feeling quite good about the fact my general sense of independence is way beyond what anyone would have expected, that was a huge moment for me.   I really believe live music should – indeed must – be for everyone and that the ability to engage in a full life, including the ability to access gigs when we choose to do so, is crucial to all of us in maintaining our psychological wellbeing.

Which brings me back to lyrics.  As I said to me before, lyrics to me are a crucial part of enjoying music but they're also often extremely hard to hear at gigs, especially if you have a hearing impairment.  Given that 10 million people in the UK – roughly 1 in 6 – are Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing, this is no small matter.  And the reality it is that the number of people – me included – who constantly go to loud gigs without ear protection and listen to loud music on headphones, means that this number is only going to increase.  This a huge number of people who may struggle to hear lyrics and, as such, miss out on a vital part of the live experience.  As a disabled person, an employee and advocate of Attitude is Everything and a believer in the importance of access to live music, I want everyone to be able to experience live performances in full.  Meanwhile in my other guise as a front man with an over-inflated ego and a desire to have that ego maintained by people telling me how brilliant my lyrics are, I also want everyone to understand what I'm singing when I play live. 

For that reason, from our album launch this Friday onwards, Paul Hawkins & The Awkward Silences are going to be using captioned subtitles of our lyrics at all of our gigs.  From next year, we're also aiming to run a new monthly night in London where we hope to caption all the bands that play, as well as introduce some other ideas we have – and many of the ideas Attitude is Everything promote – in order to make the night accessible and enjoyable as possible for all audiences.

Initially, at least, this will not be a high-tech operation.  It basically involves a TV, a laptop computer and a copy of Powerpoint.  We'd ultimately love to do something more interesting and complex involving Palantypists as that'd allow us to get my ramblings between songs captioned too but we're not quite in a position to fund that yet.  However, we want to demonstrate to bands, promoters, venues and festivals that the technology is there to get your lyrics to appear on stage cheaply and easily.  And that, as Attitude is Everything demonstrated in an article last week, this is something that benefits all audiences – regardless of whether a person has a hearing impairment or not.

For me, improving access is far too important for bands to simply leave it to venues and festivals and hope for the best.  I believe bands have a vital role to play in improving access to their own performances to push change across the music industry and I think captioning is a brilliant way to improve the live experience for your audiences whilst doing something that's creative, innovative and visually interesting.  Proactively captioning your own performances enables you to ensure the look and feel of the captions is integrated into the visuals of the band itself.  Improvements in technology mean it's cheaper and easier for bands to experiment on stage than it has ever been before.  I really think there's a superb opportunity for bands to do really innovative things around access and I'd urge other bands to join us in testing out what can be done.  The worst case scenario is you try something new and it doesn't come off but the best case scenario is you end up doing something brilliant and exciting that inspires other bands to follow in your footsteps.  And isn't that secretly what we all want our bands to do?