TBI Q&A: Ben McNicoll

'How would a good friend describe your aesthetic or style?' "He wears a hat."
When he's not playing or teaching the saxophone and organising jazz club nights, our resident 'cat in the hat' web developer Ben McNicoll can be found working away on The Big Idea overhaul.


When he's not playing or teaching the saxophone and organising jazz club nights, The Big Idea's resident 'cat in the hat' web developer Ben McNicoll can be found quietly working away on an overhaul of our website "trying to do what we do better, and open up some new ways to connect with the community."

When he's not playing or teaching the saxophone and organising jazz club nights, The Big Idea's resident 'cat in the hat' web developer Ben McNicoll can be found quietly working away on an overhaul of our website "trying to do what we do better, and open up some new ways to connect with the community."

Ben is in the process of refreshing these pages in 2013, where this interview will look fancier and be easier for you to read it, find it, share it, tag it, pin it .....

All good stuff. But in the labyrinth of the world wide web and opporuntities within open source creative communities, it's also about asking the right questions.

"We have to find a way to differentiate ourselves from the hordes of other creatives who now have access to the same channels."

Never one to mince words, Ben tells us more about himself in this TBI QnA. It's a great read, and we recommend you do so while listening to Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly" featuring Bennie Maupin (one of Ben's idols - who he met this year!)

During what hours of the day do you feel most inspired?

Inspiration can strike at any time, but I’m definitely a night-time guy. For me there’s a nice time between about 10pm-2am - being freed from the expectation of being productive at that time allows me to run with ideas to their conclusion. There are no interruptions, and I know I don’t have to keep an eye on the clock. I can’t work there all the time, but it’s definitely where some of my best work happens.

Musically, I often get inspired on the way home from a gig where I’ve heard some music I like - I’m a bit of a musical magpie, and I pick up on elements that I like in someone’s music and want to make something like that. Also, walking alone, or doing dishes seem to be cues.

How would a good friend describe your aesthetic or style?

He wears a hat.

What aspect of your creative practice gives you the biggest thrill?

It depends which hat I have on at the time. There’s an undeniable enjoyment in playing music – I play (mainly) jazz -  and the moments where a band takes off and you all lift yourself beyond what you thought was possible are wonderful. I also love sitting in a groove, and watching a crowd dance – having a small part in something that combines to a larger whole. 

How does your environment affect your work?

I like tools that are (metaphorically) friction-less; tools that don’t get in the way of your practice, whatever that is. A tool that you barely notice is there will let you into the creative space more easily. A tool that makes your heart sing every time you use it is even better; I love my coffee plunger.

I’m a slightly messy person, but I find when I clear the decks a bit, it can help as well.

Do you like to look at the big picture or focus on the details?

Both. In both making music and in building websites, the whole is made up of many interlocking parts that all have to work, but they all have to serve the larger purpose. That’s probably true of most things.

What's your number one business tip for surviving (and thriving) in the creative industries?

Get paid. Pay attention to getting paid. Don’t be embarrassed to talk about money. Don’t be embarrassed to ask to be paid. Ask for what you want or need to participate. Value your skills and time, and have a bottom line. Choose when to do it for love. Say no sometimes.  Get clear on expectations – try to avoid open ended or expanding commitments. That may be more than one tip, but I see those as facets of the same thing.

Which of your projects to date has given you the most satisfaction?

“Most” is always a hard one. I’m not easily satisfied, so it’s a case of the more important the project, the less likely I am to feel satisfied about it. I’m predisposed to asking how could that have gone better.

I am really pleased at the growth of a project I’m involved with - CJC Creative Jazz Club Aotearoa is a weekly Wednesday night gig at 1885 bar in the Britomart precinct focusing on original and contemporary jazz and improvised music. It’s a voluntary effort to run it, but the people involved are great, and I feel like it’s doing a good thing for the jazz scene in Auckland. Hugely satisfying to enable some of the great musicians in Auckland and NZ to put their music out there for people to see, and to build an audience who’ll keep coming back to hear it.

Also it gets me out and listening to live music regularly, and is a way to keep in touch with musicians who I might not see often.

There is satisfaction in solving whatever technical/conceptual/design problem I’m dealing with on a job - but it tends to be fleeting.

Who or what has inspired you recently?

Hanging out with one of my idols earlier this year – the sax, flute and bass clarinet player Bennie Maupin, who played on seminal records with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock (Bitches Brew, and Head Hunters respectively), and really informed how I would like to sound on soprano saxophone. Such a warm and humble man, and he gave me some great advice that is transforming my sound at the moment.

It’s easy to feel like we’re a bit removed down at this end of the world, so I think when you meet a legend in your field and talk to them and realise they are a real person, that allows the inspiration to flourish.

And it was satisfying that the opportunity came about through working with CJC, so it’s nice to see another way voluntary activity pays off.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I’ve come from a fairly musical family, and grew up listening to jazz, and playing with the family band, so I went and studied music. But it’s pretty hard to make a living as a jazz musician, and at the time I didn’t want to go into teaching in schools. I drifted sideways through IT support into designing websites. My first love is music, but I’ve discovered I really enjoy organising information as well - solving problems for small businesses.

Tell us a bit about your recent and upcoming projects.

Musically, there’s the aforementioned CJC – and I occasionally play with visiting artists there (such as Wed 14th November with Michel Benebig, a jazz organist from New Caledonia). I’m playing with the North Harbour Big Band on the shore, to keep my music reading happening.

Recently, I’ve been playing with hip-hop crew Home Brew, and it’s great they’ve been recognised with a Tui at the Vodafone Music Awards.

I’m involved in a new group exploring Caribbean and Jamaican music styles and applying them to a jazz frame, which should hopefully getting out and about in the next few months.

I’d love to be playing some afro-beat music again, or to explore Salsa, and Latin Jazz.

And with my web hat on, I’m working on re-developing the next phase of The Big Idea website.

Tell us a about your role at The Big Idea and the drupal upgrade.

Well, we’ve been quietly working away in the background on an overhaul of The Big Idea site. Trying to do what we do better, and open up some new ways to connect with the community.

This means redesigning a bit, but mainly upgrading the platform the site is built on to the latest version, so we can continue to improve it as we go forward.

As part of this, I’ve also stepped into a more day-day role with The Big Idea, which is leading to a lot of insight about how I can support the aims of the organisation through the site, and should enable a more continual/incremental development approach.

If you could go back and choose a completely different career path to the one you've chosen, what would it be?

Probably musician. I’d like to see if I did it different the second time around.

What place is always with you, wherever you go?

Auckland’s West coast beaches always feel like home to me. 

What's the best way to listen to music, and why?

Live. Everything else is an attempt to reproduce that feeling. Or immersively, on the best sounding rig you can afford. I like to listen behind the melody, behind the front, to the details in the background. That means having good equipment, but also that I like to listen to stuff that’s been recorded well. I’m a bit of an audiophile.

You are given a piece of string, a stick and some fabric. What do you make?

How long is it? What type of fabric? A frame drum. Or a toy parachute.

What's the best stress relief advice you've ever been given?

Ask for what you need, and find a way to make it easier for yourself.

I find stress is the conflict between needing an outcome, and believing it’s not possible. So if you can step outside the parameters you think you’re working with, either by altering the acceptable outcomes or time-frame, or enlisting the help you need, or accepting that it just isn’t going to happen, and that that’s OK, the stress backs off a bit.

What’s great about today?

It’s Spring. And I’ve got a cool gig coming up.

What’s your big idea for 2013?

Honestly, this year’s been a bit of a blur, so I haven’t thought that far ahead.

I’d like to pull together a musical project where I’m a leader, or at least a key voice in the direction. I’m not sure what that is yet - but I have a few ideas.

I’d like to get involved with running a jazz festival in Auckland, and there are some promising developments in that arena already. 2013 might be the year.

* * * The Big Idea 10th Birthday Questions * * *

What does The Big Idea mean to you?

As well as being a job, I got involved because I was impressed by the aims of The Big Idea as an organisation. I like the approach of sustainability in all forms, and that means the arts must be personally sustainable for practitioners.

What changes have you noticed in the past 10 years?

Internet. There has been a massive shift across many disciplines in the last 10 years; with the growth of broadband internet, and cheaper computers, working digitally and promoting online has become a necessity not an option. To a certain extent, if you’re not on Google, you don’t exist for many people.

It’s now easier for anyone to attempt to build an audience - the challenges have stopped being technical, and are now about standing out from the crowd through the quality of whatever you’re doing. Your potential audience is global, but you’ll likely only ever reach a smaller proportion of those people.

What are some of the opportunities and challenges for the next decade?

From a music, performing arts and media perspective, I think we’re still in a transition that will shake up previous business and funding models. The pace of change seems to be accelerating.

With the reduced barrier to entry, and the ability to step around the traditional gatekeepers and middle-men, the opportunities are much wider than ever before, but it means we have to become our own promoters. We have to find a way to differentiate ourselves from the hordes of other creatives who now have access to the same channels.

So we have to become our own promoters, or forge relationships in a new way. And your potential audience is global but niche, so we need to become better at “surgical” promotion to a specific audience who want to hear from us, rather than a broadcast approach.

Another challenge we’ll see is the tension between consumers’ desires for content (of any kind) to be free, along with the ease of “piracy”, and the temptation to offer our output free in the first place to build an audience; and the need to make enough money from our output to live off.

As a society, we’ll also face the rear-guard action of large corporations attempting to criminalise anything that threatens their old business model. Which, the evidence seems to suggest, will act against the interests of the artists they claim to represent - as they are now the new competition.

As a web developer, the largest challenge will be the pace of change. There’s now a continual learning curve, and the field is too broad to be expert in everything, so we must specialise, but watch to see that we’re not becoming obsolete.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

7 Nov 2012

The Big Idea Editor Cathy Aronson is a journalist, photo journalist and digital editor.

Peter Baker, owner/operator for Rhythmethod Distribution and general manager for digital music aggregator DRM.
Story / Digital & Technology, Music, Screen & Sound
Want to get all that great music you've created out to the masses? It's time to look at distribution.
Story / Music
Check out these resources for musicians including guides on press kits, streaming services and touring budgets.
TSB Bowl of Brooklands is the picturesque setting for WOMAD NZ.
Story / Management & Admin, Music, Other
Chris Herlihy spills the alphabet of running big events like WOMAD NZ. With a B for banking and business, F for flexibility, and P for professionalism and partnerships.
Story / Music
A quick chat with Tulegur, a modern nomad group rooted in traditional tunes of Inner Mongolia and influenced by rock music, playing at WOMAD NZ 2016.