Wednesday, February 4, 2015

FEATURE- Fragile in America: Midge Ure Explores a Changing Industry

Photo Credit: Andy Siddens/

Thirty years ago this July, Ultravox frontman Midge Ure stood on stage at Wembley Stadium in front of 72,000 people (with more than 1 billion others watching on live television) during Live Aid and delivered the band's biggest hit, “Vienna.” Along with Queen's flawless performance later that day, Ure's soaring vocals on the song's chorus remains the pivotal musical moment of the entire history-making event. The same year, Ure released his first solo album, The Gift, which yielded a UK Number 1 single with the classic track, “If I Was.” These two events found the Scottish singer/guitarist at the peak of his career – a journey that began more than a decade earlier and steadily progressed through stints with Slik, Thin Lizzy, Rich Kids and Visage before he found international success as the singer in the most popular incarnation of Ultravox. Now, 30 years later, Ure has entered another defining era in his life's work.

At the time of this writing, Ure is only days away from launching the second leg of a US/Canadian solo tour that finds him traveling from city to city, venue to venue with little more than his guitar and some merchandise. Gone are the limos he rode in during his tenure with Thin Lizzy and the massive amounts of equipment that went into an Ultravox gig circa 1983. When you see Midge Ure on this jaunt, you see Midge Ure – a 61-year-old working musician with only his voice and the instrument in front of him to maintain the onstage momentum. Why would a man in the later stage of his career decide to follow a way of touring that is typically reserved for younger acts that have yet to achieve stardom? Because the music industry that birthed Ure's success is nowhere close to the industry that exists today, and Ure wants to see for himself what it means to strive for greatness in the modern age. This experiment includes everything from releasing his first solo album in more than a decade (last year's extraordinary Fragile) entirely on his own to booking his own flights, hotels and rental cars on the trip.

“That's how anyone [who is independent] going out there to do this would have to do it,” he explains. “Weirdly, on the first show in Seattle, the girl who was opening up for me, Angela Sheik, was asking me why I was doing this. I explained it, and she said, 'How ironic is that? That's exactly how I've been doing it for 10 years because I don't know any other way of doing it.'”

Not surprisingly, Ure has learned that keeping the ball in the air as a performer - and promoting a new album at the same time - is one hell of a task for a do-it-yourself artist to accomplish in 2015.

“I've got to realize there is no label here, really,” he says. “There's a distribution label, but I've heard nothing from them. I don't know anyone there, and no one's ever asked me to do an interview. The best way of getting coverage for Fragile is to come out and do some dates, get a PR person on the case and make sure I've got all the bases covered.”

Naturally, the US/Canadian tour has allowed Ure an opportunity to touch base with various up-and-coming artists in each city he visits. His takeaway from these encounters is the troubling reality that anyone starting out in the music business today is facing what he calls “a difficult transitional period” of diminished record sales and illegal downloading.

“You can't walk up to a car showroom and just drive out with whatever you fancy because it's there, but in music you can,” he says. “It's absolutely killing the industry, and nobody sees it and is doing anything about it. Without sounding too death, doom and destruction here, it's not a very rosy future right now until we get this sorted.

“There's an entire generation growing up that hasn't got aspirations of being in U2 or doing a huge Madonna- or Gaga-like show,” he adds. “They're just working musicians and they're trying to figure out how to do this. And it may not be as a permanent job; it may be something they do [that is] subsidized by doing a regular job, which is maybe how it's going [and] quite a sad thing to think of.”

But there's always the Net to promote yourself, right? Well...maybe not.

“The Internet was meant to be the savior of music, but I've not quite seen how that works yet,” Ure admits. “What it seems to be to me is a massive haystack and we're all a little needle. They'll throw a needle in the haystack and then hope that somebody else can find that. There's no real way of generating an audience and pointed an audience towards that.”

This scenario is a far cry from Ure's early years in the '70s, an era when a musician willing to pay his or her dues long enough was rewarded with a recording contract and a shot at the big leagues. These days, bands pay their dues and... keep paying them. The singer got an eyeful of this fact a few weeks ago when he was looking at the sticker-covered wall in the backstage area of the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland and it suddenly dawned on him that he didn't know any of the names displayed.

“There must have been thousands of stickers,” he recalls. “There are thousands of bands out there all trying to eke out a living. There aren't many places to play; a lot of the tribute bands have eaten up a lot of the venues that you would normally go cut your teeth in and learn how the whole thing works. It's kind of a dying side of the industry, but a really important side of the industry. Without new blood and new music coming into our world, it's going to be a pretty dull place to be, isn't it?”

Fortunately, the response to Ure's recent shows has been far from lukewarm. His current set includes a fair share of Ultravox staples (“Vienna,” “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” “The Voice,” “Hymn, ” etc.) alongside solo classics (“Cold Cold Heart, “If I Was”) and newer cuts (“Become,” “Fragile”). Of course, he also delivers Visage's immortal 1980 hit, “Fade To Grey.” During our conversation, Ure noted how surprised he was by the amount of album covers fans have brought with them for him to sign after the shows. Despite the negative aspects about the industry he's seen during this most recent trek, it is clear that Ure is still touching people with his music.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Ure's current tour is that this is the first time fans in this part of the world will get to hear material from the new album live. The creation of Fragile was a years-long process interrupted in 2008 by an unexpected reunion of Ultravox's legendary 1979-1986 lineup for a new album (2012's Brill!ant) and live dates. Although Ultravox's activities contributed to Fragile's delay, the long wait was also due to the fact that its creator had actually considered stepping away from the spotlight for good.

“I went though a massive period of not wanting to be in the music industry and not wanting to be a part of what the industry has become,” he reveals. “This American Idol, X-Factor, Britain's Got Talent nonsense and karaoke bollocks seem to be the driving force for what's left in the music industry. You create something publicly on television, get the pubic to vote for it and sell the same thing to the public. It's not the next Kate Bush, it's not the next Led Zeppelin and it's not the next Jimi Hendrix or whatever. That side of the industry has always been there; there's always been really homogenized, manipulated, manufactured, palatable and disposal Pop nonsense. That's fine, but to balance that out there's always been the interesting and radical stuff that changes the ballgame. When it becomes successful, all of a sudden that's the next direction the industry heads off in. Everyone has to have the next Peter Gabriel or the next Sex Pistols, whatever it happens to be. But we seem to have eliminated all that now. It's still there, but it's not getting the same focus that the disposable Pop stuff is, because the disposable Pop stuff is exactly what I've just said it is. It's quick, cheap, 'get it out there, make loads of videos and sell it to the kids'...and then the thing disappears in two years' time. We're left with no longevity; there's no longterm artist who's going to develop over the next 20 years like U2 or Coldplay have. I didn't really want to be part of that, but then I realized that you can't win a war unless you have a fight and you get your hands dirty. I gave myself a clip 'round the ear and just said, 'Get on with it!' I'm in a very privileged position to be able to make music. How much of a brat would I be sitting there throwing my toys out of the pram, saying, “I don't want to be part of this anymore'? So I just got on with making what I thought was interesting.”

As Ure gears up for another round of rental cars and hotels, he knows full well that travel of this nature often leads to rough days and lonely nights. Sadly, the emotionally taxing world of touring often leads musicians down a road to addiction. Thankfully, Ure's hard-fought victory against alcoholism (an effort he details in his must-read 2004 autobiography, If I Was) has remained intact through the highs and lows.

“I try not to think about it,” he says of the temptations of the road. “There are moments that are key triggers. It used to be being in a plane. [I'd] see the drinks rolling by and think, 'Fantastic. I'm on a plane for the next 10 hours. There's nothing to do; I'll just sit and get smashed and have a laugh.' Of course, all the excitement of flying into New York or Los Angeles or wherever and just starting a tour and the twinkling lights just holds this magical appeal. You think, 'Oh, there's something out there that I can get into!' Those elements still flash up in [my] brain, even though it's been years now. They're still there; it's like a little demon in your head that kind of goes, 'Ooh, wouldn't that be fun?' But I don't, because I think the fear of going back there vastly outweighs whatever sort of appeal it may still have in the twisted logic that's flying around your brain that tells you, 'Well, maybe one will be okay.' You think, 'No'...Doing that and waking up the next morning and thinking, 'Oh, shit.'...I couldn't go there.”

In addition to completing the rest of his current tour dates, Ure is planning to put together some shows to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his Breathe album in the not-too-distant future. When this writer reminded Ure that 2015 is the 30th anniversary of The Gift – and thus the 30th anniversary of his life as an album-generating solo artist – our chat switched to how easy and enjoyable that album was for him to create all those years ago.

“The whole reason for doing The Gift was I wanted to get away from the complexity of what Ultravox was doing at the time,” he recalls. “I wasn't making a serious statement, but once I had done [The Gift], some of the subsequent albums became too serious. I don't know what I was trying to do. I'm not putting it down, but I went through a phase of not wanting to play 'If I Was.' I wouldn't do it at solo concerts. I think a lot of artists do that; they almost dismiss the vehicle that got them there. I wised up after a while and said, 'This is crazy. It's a song that a lot of people come and see you because of.' So yeah, I think it takes a while to come out of a band, bearing in mind The Gift was done during my period with Ultravox. The Answers To Nothing album [1988] was done without Ultravox, so I was desperately trying to find my feet; I didn't know where I fitted in. I supposed The Gift was exactly what it was meant to be; it's solo record in the confines and within the security structure of being in Ultravox. It's not like I was sticking my head above the parapet and saying, 'This is me. I'm a solo artist. This is what I've got to say.' It was me doing a busman's holiday, I suppose. When the band were all taking six months lying on beaches, I was in the studio making that.”

Whether hitting the high notes in “Vienna” in front of millions or performing “If I Was” to a modest crowd in the Midwest, Midge Ure is one of those truly classic performers who can win over an audience of any size. While the future of the recording industry has yet to be written, its present is alive and well in the hearts of anyone fortunate enough to catch this lone, legendary artist traveling from club to club with only his guitar and a lifetime's worth of amazing songs to sing.

Photo Credit: Andy Siddens/

Midge Ure performs at Johnny D's in Somerville, MA on February 21. 


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