Forced Into a Corner
Many years ago, probably around 1988, I was trying desperately to find a way out of a job I had taken in a machinery showroom in Manchester by way of moving my family (then just wife and daughter) back north from where we lived in Reading. The job was six days a week with American style annual leave, I had to battle to be the only person in this national chain with a pension (other than the guy who owned the business). When I finally left, I had to enlist a solicitor to enforce payment of the promised pension rights.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came long before that when I returned from a two week holiday to find my job advertised in the local newspapers, whereupon I ‘did a John’ on the owner over the phone, who quickly agreed a compromise rather than be taken through an industrial tribunal on clear grounds of constructive dismissal. In those days industrial tribunals were a much more effective way of upholding employees’ rights than they are today. The end result of my challenge was that I worked an agreed indefinite notice period until I found a job I actually wanted to do, and that is what got me into international trade.
The notice period lasted about 8 months. My role changed and I was training salespeople in branches across the country, taking time out for interviews whenever I wanted to. There were good interviews and bad interviews, and the very worst of them was with a financial services company in Manchester, one of those you apply for just to get interview experience. My 20-something male interviewer was bedecked with ostentatious gold (real or imitation) jewellery and dressed in the sharpest suit, and he expected me to take a job where I sold financial products to my family and friends and their families and friends on a commission only basis. Wow.
I let the interview run its course, smiling in all the right places, answering his facile questions, and listening to his scripted garbage corporate jargon. After about twenty minutes he asked if I would like to be considered for a second interview and I agreed to that. I stood up to leave with his hand attempting to crush mine in a show of macho strength which I feigned to concede. He then asked “I have selected three people including yourself for the job I have available. Can you tell me why I should select you rather than the other two?” I paused, looked him in the eye and replied “Because you haven’t got two other people, and now you have none. I’m sorry but I don’t want your silly job”.
Back in those days, musicians were earning their crust from a mix of live performances and recorded music. About ten years earlier, Philips had demonstrated the first Compact Disc audio player, and CDs were commercially available from 1982. The growth of popular music that began in the 1950s and took us through Rockabilly, the Swinging Sixties and progressive rock, then glam rock and punk in the 1970’s, then exploded in the 1980s with the new technology that has since been almost wholly usurped by streaming services. It used to be the case that live performances were a band’s loss leader, necessary in order to sell records. These days, only a select few musicians make money out of recorded music but their live tours are hugely lucrative for at least someone in their ‘supportive’ entourage. Those established on the various music circuits will get paid enough for live performances and sell enough music on and offline to encourage them to continue, and the rest are expected to do it for free or on a promise while trying to simultaneously hold down their day jobs. I am lucky enough to not have to do music for a living.
One of the methods now regularly used by musicians to keep their dreams alive is crowdfunding. It is not a new concept. The first recognised incidence of crowdfunding, the Irish Loan Fund, was started by Jonathan Swift in 1700 to provide loans to low income families in rural areas. Part of the construction of the Statue of Liberty was financed through a form of crowd funding. However, its most recent manifestation came as a result of Marillion raising $60,000 from their fans to finance their 1997 tour of the USA. The scene was set and many more musicians have since funded their tours and recordings with the support of their group of loyal followers… but hang on a minute… is that not similar to what the guy in the sharp suit bedecked with gold jewellery was trying to get me to do back in 1988?
The short answer is yes it is, but the circumstances are such that because the music industry seems almost exclusively to focus on making money for the few, fan based support for musicians is now vital to the very existence or continuance of many artists and bands. Crowdfunding is not something that I personally feel comfortable with, but there may yet be instances where I will go against instinct and attempt to fund a specific project. I think that’s because I don’t see fan based support as sustainable in the long term. We have to accept that most of us don’t have the profile that Marillion did in 1997, and that our crowdfunding efforts are likely therefore to become dependent on the generosity and support of a few loyal followers and perhaps the blind allegiance of those closest to us.
What disturbs me more is that highly successful and profitable companies have been formed to provide a platform for those musicians who need to take the crowdfunding path. Most of the musicians continue to struggle. I believe ArtistShare was the first of these (2003?), and has since been followed by PledgeMusic, Patreon, Kickstarter, and others. None of these platforms provide their services for free any more than Apple Music, Spotify, Bandcamp, and other such. They are money making machines that succeed on the back of the patronage provided to musicians by their own followers.
The stark reality for musicians is that these days people are more likely to stream or share music than buy it, and that has led to an expectation that all music should be freely accessible. While many will pay £165 for a single ticket to see Beyonce at Manchester’s MEN Arena as a friend of mine once did, they baulk at paying even a nominal entrance fee to watch independent musicians deliver amazing and innovative sounds with rawness and passion. No in-ears, no backing tracks, just real instruments and voices. The ways in which musicians can now earn a living through that passion are limited. £165 to most independent musicians is a wage.
The music industry is no place for the faint hearted, no place for anyone who is not single-minded and determined to succeed one way or another. Success has become increasingly difficult to forecast let alone guarantee. Musicians are being forced to compromise and follow the crowdfunding route in order to build a following sufficient to attract the notice of promoters or record companies who may one day give them their big break. So although I may not like the concept of crowdfunding for music, I understand it, and I urge readers to consider supporting the musicians and bands they follow in a long term, sustainable way. There has to be a trade-off of course, but musicians are creative people and will generally provide you with an ‘experience’ that you will really enjoy and that will enrich your life in some way.
If you do nothing else, buy a song from the musicians you like. The amounts each recording artist get from the major platforms is pitiful, so look instead at Bandcamp, CDBaby etc. The Music Industry needs to change and only musicians and fans can really change it for the better. So let’s get to it. I’m open to ideas.
My new album with #TheFoldedArms, #TheBreedingGroundOfVile, is only available on Bandcamp who a) give the musicians a better deal and b) provide high quality FLAC or WAV downloads for your enjoyment. And if you are struggling to find real quality new music you like try looking out for:
The Folk Pilot with Neil Vessey – https://www.mixcloud.com/s3cur3d4d123/the-folk-pilot-episode-21/ every Wednesday
Music For GrownUps with Dave Roberts – http://www.meridianfm.com every Thursday
Folk Union with Carl Spaul – https://www.mixcloud.com/chelmsfordcr/ every Friday (I bought every track from Carl’s latest music hour featuring British independent artists)
#LoveLiveMusic #SupportIndependentMusicians #SupportLocalVenues