The Art of Longevity Season 2, Episode 6: Portico Quartet


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Discovering a band all to yourself is the best type of music discovery there is. One day in the mid 2000s as my wife and I wandered along London’s South Bank, we were stopped in our tracks by music the likes of which we’d never heard before - jazzy, rhythmic, with a haunting steel drum but also with an element of ‘indie’. There, were four very young men (then in their late teens) busking with a confident authority - more a private performance than a busk, and with quite an audience too.

That band was Portico Quartet and we were just two of many thousands of early adopter fans from those early South Bank busks outside The National Gallery. We bought a copy of the band's very first, self-pressed four-track CD for £5, one of 10,000 sold I recently discovered. When I spoke with Duncan Bellamy (drums and the hang steel drum) and Jack Wylie (sax) for The Art of Longevity, Jack told me:

"We'd go off to buy big stacks of blank CDs at Maplins, and we bought this burner machine that could do eight at a time. I think we managed to do 200-250 a day. As a student, it meant we could make a living without working in a bar. It was great fun”.

I put it to Duncan and Jack that they would have to achieve 10 million streams to make the equivalent revenues now (20 million if splitting revenues 50:50 with a record label). Who’d have thought that, as part of establishing an early following as an instrumental band, you could create your own perfectly viable business model as well? For the Portico Quartet, those early years of ‘struggle’ were more like an exercise in building a cottage industry.

From those early days, the Portico Quartet’s rise was as meteoric as it gets for an instrumental band. In 2008 came the Mercury Music Prize nomination for their full debut album ‘Knee Deep in the North Sea’ and one year later the band signed to Real World Records, the independent label owned by Peter Gabriel. That came with a huge leap in the maturity of their sound (2009’s Isla) and a full stop to the days of busking. As a fan, observing the band’s musical development has been a truly remarkable experience but don't take my word for it, listen to Duncan and Jack's take on things...

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