This is just a series of observations from my experience of what we nowadays tend to call the music industry. The first thing that comes to mind is that this industry seems to have at least two tiers that I’m aware of. And the connexion between the two is not perfectly clear to me. In this respect I’d welcome any clarification that anyone reading this might be able to give me, via the comments section.
These two tiers seem to be (and this is a very rough classification, but one that makes sense in the light of my experience):
A) the multi billion pound world of major record companies, massive music festivals and live tours, TV talent contests, represented massively on TV and Radio, etc., and
B) the every day world of people getting together to make music at local level, involving the performance of a mixture of covers and originals and gigs in pubs, weddings, parties, charity gigs, open mic nights, etc.
In the world of tier b very few are able to make a full time living by just performing and many don’t derive any kind of income at all from it, despite containing people both with talent and a desire to make a career from music.
The story goes, though, that tier a) is fed by tier b); in other words, everyone in tier a) has to come through tier b).
This is my understanding, but, again it really is beyond my experience. In thirty years of making music in my hometown, then Madrid, London and Norwich, none of my personal friends or acquaintances have exemplified that transition from b to a. This could be just my personal history, maybe I just happened not to be near the right people or in the right place at the right time. I’d be interested to hear other personal experiences.
A little bit of history
Not very long ago I watched a BBC documentary, presented by Rick Wakeman and entitled ‘Tales from the Tour Bus’. In this documentary it was quite clear from the stories told by the musicians the film was about that, in the fifties, sixties and seventies, being a musician was a feasible and potentially lucrative career path, open to more or less anyone who wanted it.
You didn’t even have to be a musician! Someone says in the program that if you had a van and could drive you would be welcome to be in the band. More importantly, someone else says that being a musician was a realistic way to escape the drudgery of factory work. So, you could make a (possibly meagre) living out of it, you could pay for transport, equipment, repairs, food, housing costs (no doubt in cramped conditions, possibly with your band mates) and have some money left for beer (or other drugs!). Not wealthy but it beats packing dead chickens for forty hours a week.
Even more interestingly, bands were motivated not just by the money, but also the lifestyle and its creative potential, they loved music. Now think of what the opportunities were for those musicians, once they had their basic needs covered. With paid musical work came the chance to not just become good, but excellent, simply because it was a 24/7, 52 weeks a year endeavour. Bands started abandoning the playing of just covers and wrote their own music, because (wait for it) it was more lucrative! Originals bands topped the bills and could claim authors’ rights, there was a thirst in audiences for original music!
Why am I writing about all this? I suppose I want to bring your attention to the situation us musicians live in at the moment. This is a response to the many reports in social media about pubs and music venues that want music in their business but not to pay for it, written by musicians who want to became full/part time professionals. Often these complaints are also aimed at hobbyists that aren’t really that bothered to play for financial reward and are seen by many as damaging the career prospects of others.
So, basically, a market has been created in tier b, in which music is both accorded zero financial value and incidental to other transactions such as selling beer; made possible by the convergence of (to judge by the online criticisms) business owners that play by the hard (but legal) rules of the ‘free market’ plus amateur musicians that have their livelihood covered by means other than performing.
But, hang on a minute, aren’t we leaving another important actor out of this equation? … the audience.
It seems to me that the period depicted in the documentary was one of intense, vibrant creativity that produced some of the best popular music of the twentieth century and that part of that success had to do with a business model (think of The Beatles’s Hamburg residency) that was supported by a youth culture that was intensely interested in musical innovation, extremely loyal to their bands, expected them to last and develop with them, and were willing to spend money on them. All this before the bands were famous (tier b). For whichever reasons I don’t see that happening nowadays.
Between 2009-13 I was in a pop/rock band called National Image, in Norwich, doing the circuit that is expected of a band of that type (Brickmakers, B2, Open, Waterfront Studio, Hog, Stanley, etc, etc), three quite decent EPs, quite a loyal following of in between fifty and eighty people, we ticked quite a lot of boxes. But I became discouraged when I noticed this one fact.
When we participated in multiband nights in quite posh venues like Open we always dutifully brought our fifty friends. So did (some of) the others. Five bands times fifty, 250 potential pair of new ears. What could be wrong, I always thought at the start of the evening, this system has to work. Only it didn’t, not even once in three years. Simply because almost no one seemed to have any interest in any bands other than the one they came to the venue to see, as soon as they came off the stage they disappeared from the room and a new set of fifty faces replaced the old ones. Basically we spent three years playing for the same fifty people.
“Your band must’ve been shite” I hear you say. Perhaps (judge for yourself here), although the same thing happened to every other band that played with us. Also, I’m not saying that people listened to the first tune and decided they were better off smoking a ciggy in the February cold, no, they literally disappeared in the time it took for one band to leave the stage and the next one to get ready to go. Our fans did the same. Does this ring any bells or have I been sleeping?
Right, what am I trying to say here?
I think my point is this:
– a confluence of many different factors, cultural, sociological, political, helped bring about a golden age of popular music.
– in that age the entry gates to music as a profession were wider than now. It meant that both an (probably) unprecedented number of people were professional musicians and had potential access to very high earnings.
– conditions are different now and opportunities are restricted to a much smaller number of people.
– opportunities are even fewer for people without the financial means to invest in band development, since paid live work carries on disappearing (nowadays you’d be stuck in the chicken factory). Like so many things in the neoliberal world there may be a class thing developing in the music industry.
I suppose you could say that phenomenons such as pay-to-play, etc. are not really the causes of the crisis in tier b of the music industry, but the symptoms. Landlords don’t pay for music because for audiences (and I’m aware this is a generalisation) music is incidental to their night out, not the main reason for it. What do you guys think?
One last thought from me (if you’re still reading!). I think that National Image was good, but I also thought that by the time we split up we’d only started to scratch the surface of what we could’ve done! The whole thing for me became an investment of time and money I couldn’t support.