Where is the money?

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.


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Small fish, big pond

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that saying that goes something like this, ‘better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big one’. This is something that I’d never heard before I arrived in the UK, I’m not sure there’s an equivalent one in Spanish; I can only think of the one that goes ‘más vale pájaro en mano que ciento volando’, which more or less means to not let go of what you’re sure to achieve for the sake of some future, bigger, but unguaranteed reward. I’m not sure if this is the best course of action every time, but I definitely have experience of the pond/fish wisdom. When I left La Coruña (250,000) for Madrid (3,000,000) to further my musical education I entered an amazing world of opportunity and it didn’t take long before I met many exciting musicians. It took me just a year to be able to leave my day job as a hotel porter and make a decent living touring with a function band. My confidence grew so much that two years later I thought to myself ‘if I can make it in Madrid I should be able to make it in … London’.

If you have any experience of life you know what happened next. Living in a foreign country is an amazing and fulfilling adventure and I know that what motivated me to move to London wasn’t just the desire to be involved in the English speaking music scene. But the move had an unintended effect, I’ve been unable since then (1993) to make a living as a musician. The concept of ‘bigger size equals more opportunity’ seemed to work in the pair Coruña/Madrid but broke down when London was put in the equation. London was just too big for me and I got bogged down in the practicalities of making a living in a megalopolis with a ratio of musicians to inhabitants that seems to me a lot bigger that Madrid.

Would I have rather stayed in Madrid, be a working musician with a, by now, good reputation, and miss on the mind opening experience of living in an English speaking country, with all its exciting challenges? I think the answer has to be no, things are as they should … but every so often I do wonder…

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The mystery of the elastic bands

This is something I’ve been wanting to share for a long time. If this blog ever gets to be known I’d like to hear about the experience of other foreigners in the UK in relation to the following.  I came to England for the first time in Christmas 1989, to the famous city of Liverpool, and one of the first things that I found unusual was the fact that on my first walk into town I could spot elastic bands lying on the floor for miles and miles, at what seemed regular intervals of perhaps twenty metres or so, one at a time, sometimes groups of two, never three. This was something that really puzzled me. I noticed that it didn’t matter which part of the city I was in I still could see these yellowy cream, 1mm wide elastic bands on the floor. I asked my hosts about this and no one was able to explain the reason. I went back home (Madrid at the time) and didn’t think of it again.

Three years later my girlfriend and I (she was the liverpudlian I had been visiting the first time) decided to leave Madrid and move to London, and sure enough, as soon as I set my foot out of the train station in leafy Surrey that was my destination I saw… an elastic band on the floor, and then another, and then another. So, it wasn’t a phenomenon specific to Liverpool then. I settled into my new life in NW London and got used to the elastic bands but still couldn’t find anyone who could explain this occurrence, so I learned to live with it.

Many, many months later, perhaps a year or longer I was walking behind a postie who was doing his rounds and had two letters in his hand. He stopped in front of a terrace house, looked at the letter on top of his bundle and then… pulled off an elastic band that was keeping these two letters joined to each other and proceeded to drop it on the floor!

Ultimately, what I found most amusing about this experience is that none of my English friends at the time seemed to have noticed this. Even now, from time to time I ask the people I know if they know what the elastic bands on the floor mean, so far nobody seems to know the answer to the mystery.

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Chasing Tigers at Open Club Room, Norwich

Another band I enjoyed last night was Chasing Tigers, a quartet from Norwich, with Laurence Brooks on voice and guitar and Lee Venn on second guitar. I like the sense of style of this band, they really look and sound like they’ve put a lot of thought into what they do, you can see they’re striving for originality. They are a well rehearsed band, very tight sounding and offer upbeat guitar rock, with good songs and a very personal vocal delivery. Laurence is a very likeable front man, passionate and with a degree of mystery to him, a charismatic chap. Actually I found that all the artists I saw (I missed Evison) including Billy Lockett, Lee Vann and James Eliot Taylor had quite a charismatic side to them.

I’d like Chasing Tigers to be more concise and to the point in their song writing though; they often insert these (very enjoyable in themselves) instrumental sections between verses, and verses and choruses that obscure the form of the song and prevent it from really taking off. Having said that, the crowd enjoyed the interplay of both guitarists and so did I a lot of the time, they’re able to create some interesting textures, the rhythm section is very high and the band communicates well on stage and with the audience. I highly recommend this band.

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Lee Venn at Open Club Room, Norwich


Last night I attended for the first time a gig at the Club Room at Open, a new small sized venue in Norwich, England. I must say I was really impressed with it, nice place indeed, and one that was overdue in this city. It’s a well equipped room with an extremely competent team of sound technicians (joy for musicians!) that extracted a really beautiful sound from all the artists, my only quip perhaps being that the kick drum had a slightly aggressive, loud edge to it. I think the quality of the sound was probably reflected in the sense of enjoyment the performers gave out.

I had the chance to see a Norwich singer/songwriter called Lee Vann whom I really enjoyed. He played a set on acoustic guitar (with some looping) that was very interesting and energetic. The thing that most impressed me was his control of the guitar, great sound, interesting ideas and total dominance of time, a really well above average guitarist.  Very often around here, with guitarist/singers who loop their parts, there is some time variance that shows when all the parts have built up. Not with Lee! His sense of time and rhythm is immaculate and he peppers some very intricate strumming with percussive runs on the front of the guitar, he really does at times sound like a machine gun. His rhythm style shows influences from rock, funk and I would also say a little bit of a latin influence. All this happens at quite fast tempos, not reaching the punk end of the spectrum but quite close, without the subtlety of the performance suffering in the least. He has a very pleasant and personal voice, and he looks good too, gym type of bloke who enjoys himself on stage. He’s got a full band that I’ve heard on facebook and apparently they’re playing another date at the same venue soon.

Later on he also played the electric with Chasing Tigers, but I’ll tell you more about it in another post.

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