It seems hard to imagine a time when music wasn’t immediately available at our fingertips, and harder to imagine a world where musicians weren’t reliant on touring as a way to make the majority of their income. And yet we aren’t that far away from a time when that was the case. Harry Harris looks at the way the music world has changed in the era of streaming.
The Department of Media, Culture and Sport recently published a report into the state of live music in the UK. They looked at the increasing closure of music venues, the widespread practice for ticket reselling sites such as Viagogo to snap up cost-price tickets and sell them on en mass for huge profits, and the current threats to the talent pipeline across the industry. This final section takes into account the state of music education, the so-called “value gap” between what musicians produce and the money they make from streaming, and how a post-Brexit Britain will affect musicians, some of whom make half their yearly income from touring in the EU.
It’s no surprise that this report has been published now. We are constantly told of how the music industry is changing and bombarded by information on all sides about the pros and cons of this. Streaming is hoovering up sales, but labels are making high profits. CD sales are dwindling, but vinyl is on the resurgence. Venues are closing, but the UK is contributing massively to the world music scene. There are enough problems voiced by artists and musicians alike to know that something is wrong, but nobody seems to be agreed on what. So this report is very welcome. In it, there are concerns about major labels no longer supporting emerging artists. Bands and artists having to supplement their work with full-time jobs. Money generated by the industry not being filtered down to a grassroots level. The section ends with a quote from concert promoters DHP saying “Structural problems within the music industry limit artists’ ability to earn a sustainable income, and that in turn risks excluding sections of society from a career in music.” And yet, in spite of this, music is still getting made, bands are still emerging, and gigs are still happening. So what’s it like for those who are quietly getting on with it, literally fiddling while Rome burns?
Kirsty Merryn is a folk singer and pianist whose debut album, She & I, received widespread critical acclaim on the folk scene. The Guardian liked it, BBC Radio 2 liked it, BBC Radio 6 liked it, and it reached number three in the Amazon Folk charts. It also helped her catch the attention of multi-award winning folk band Show Of Hands, who brought Kirsty on tour in 2017, where she played 22 dates to over 14,000 people. While these dates have helped Kirsty get more bookings across the country, there are still frustrations when it comes to getting a fair wage, particularly in London, where she’s based: “I make more money from gigs literally everywhere else in the UK and don’t often play in London (anyway near as much as I used to) because the volume of promoters who want you to play for free, or pay to play, is so high.”
This is one practice that the report doesn’t cover. Instead, throughout the report, promoters are positioned as being largely faced with the threat of second-hand ticket sellers. While this is an issue, it does obfuscate those promoters who do expect musicians to work for free. In London, where the dream of getting “discovered” playing in a scuzzy basement in Hackney still pervades to some extent, exposure is currency. A good example is the Isle Of Wight Festival “New Blood” Competition, run by London based promoters Hot Vox (who regularly offer drink tokens in lieu of payment, another widespread practice). At first, it seems like a good foot in the door, but there is no mention of payment to cover the slot the winning band would receive at the Festival, nor for either of the “heats”. A slot at a festival may sound like a career break, but there needs to be value attached to what you do, and it’s a shame the Government haven’t addressed this.
What is more common among touring artists, particularly those at the start of their career, who book tours themselves and can’t negotiate for a guaranteed fee, is a door-split. While this does go some way to ensuring the artist ends a gig with some money in their pocket, it does rely on the public having an appetite for live music, and in a financially unstable climate that can be tricky. Kirsty has noticed this too: “Lots of us are finding it hard to get people out to gigs right now – loads of people touring who I’ve spoken to have said the same, plus the venues themselves. I truly think it’s Brexit, people are worried and saving money.”
There are certain ideas and initiatives that have sprung up in response to this. Borrowing from a practice used widely in America and across Europe, more venues and promoters are putting on “pay what you like” gigs, and more musicians are building house concerts into their touring schedules — de facto private gigs in people’s living rooms, where 100% of the ticket money goes to the artist, along with often a place to stay and a meal. Again, house concerts are very common in the States and in Europe but have been slow to take off over here, save for the popular Sofar Sounds series that runs in many cities (but, uh, doesn’t pay its artists more than £30 a set…)
The negative consequence for much of this low-paying, uncertain work is, invariably, poor mental health. The music industry’s problem with mental health is well documented, and it’s worth pointing out the work charities like Help Musicians UK do in providing support and guidance for musicians – at any level – who may be having mental health difficulties. However, as stories of musicians struggling with their mental health at every level become more commonplace, the scale of the problem is maybe only just coming into view.
Edinburgh songwriter Lou McLean was working a high-pressure job whilst promoting her second EP, Good Morning Easter Road, to the point where she calculated she was working around 80 hours a week. “It caused my personal relationships and mental health to suffer, so sadly I had to pull back on it,” she tells me, “I wish I could do music full time, as I have a really high creative output, and actually have an EP and album of songs ready to record. But I have to put my well-being first.” The hoops you sometimes have to jump through as a fringe artist to begin to make a living from your work have already taken their toll on Lou too: “I take gigs only if I personally have a connection to the venue, organiser or charity. I think the game of having to ‘suck up’ to promoters or tastemakers brings a bitterness to your work so I started to feel a bit distant from my writing. Having a good support network of DIY artists really helped with that.”
There’s often a misconception that the music industry is a ladder. That bands start at the bottom and attempt to make their way as high up as possible, but there are far more moving parts to it than that. Session musicians, sound engineers, function bands, promoters; It’s an ecosystem that spreads out in all directions. Everyone plays their part in the success of the industry as a whole, but also, everyone’s business is different. Tom Varrall is a guitarist and composer based in South London who balances live session work, corporate gigs, composing and production, as well as one day a week of teaching. The multi-faceted nature of his business is normal, he tells me: “Almost everyone I know has another thing that they do on the side that’s musical, whether that’s writing music, running a function band, original projects or arranging.” Like Lou, a wider musical community is crucial for both wellbeing and general support, with jobs shared around and often acquired through recommendations – a kind of unspoken, pay-it-forward attitude.
However, he agrees that more support for the industry as a whole would be beneficial: “Most musicians I know have a good family support network so that if all the work suddenly stops they can still keep afloat but I think it’d be a pretty scary job if you didn’t have that. It would be nice if studio spaces were cheaper. Most other freelancers can go and work in co-working spaces and as musicians we don’t really have this option because we’re noisy.” It’s partly because of this, as well as issues around isolation and mental health, that charities like Help Musicians UK have been set-up and become so important in a relatively short space of time, even now providing funding for artists at all stages of their careers.
Felix Hagan is another musician used to juggling multiple projects as a freelancer. As well as being the frontman for glam-rock superstars Felix Hagan and The Family, he works as a musical director for theatre, a composer for corporate clients, and a producer: “At the moment I’m gearing up for the opening of my new musical, I’m also going to be working with another theatre company on songs for their new podcast, I’ve soundtracked a couple of short films that are off at festivals, I’ve produced several singles for a new Manchester band, and all the time on top of that I am writing and devising new music and performances for my own band. So diversification is hugely necessary, but it’s also a recipe for a fun and busy career”. Talking about frustrations in these other gigs, Felix sees similarities with what all other freelancers have to go through: “Clients who don’t know what they want, not getting paid on time, working constantly to try to land jobs that might get rejected at the last minute.”
The industry is no doubt in flux, and arguably it’s getting harder for people to make a decent living, but people are still trying to push through, changing it from the inside by forging their own connections, using their creativity, and making an industry that works for them. The one thing that unites everyone in the music industry is a joy for what they do. It sounds like a cliche, but passion for the work you’re creating makes the difficult days seem worth it. I remember watching a gig once and the act on stage said something to the effect of: “the travelling, the admin, the late nights, that’s what we’re getting paid for. This thing I’m doing on stage now, I do for free”.