We live in a world of temporary jobs and zero hour contracts. Work, when available, may not last long and can bring little in the way of financial reward.
The music industry is, in many ways, a microcosm of the wider economy. The ‘haves’ sell millions of CDs and downloads while charging £50 or more for tickets to watch them in very large venues. They may also negotiate hefty fees for headlining festivals.
In comparison, just about every other musician is a ‘have not’. True, some get by through filling smaller venues and selling sufficient merchandise to their loyal followings.
But after that, the vast majority of musicians play live for next to nothing while earning a pittance from streaming sites. The only consolation for those surviving in this part of music’s gig economy is that a live show, or radio airplay, can provide a not-to-be-missed opportunity to raise their profile.
Out of contract
I have no idea how many UK musicians lack recording contracts. Last week their number grew by one when, incredibly, Laura Mvula was dropped by Sony. Critically-acclaimed albums and TV advertising deals are, apparently, no longer enough to impress record company executives.
None of the 100+ unsigned artists appearing at the Icebreaker Festival in Portsmouth last weekend are as well known as Mvula, nor necessarily as good. But the overall quality at the festival was still high – incredibly so when you consider that many of those playing make music for a hobby and have little intention (or prospect) of turning it into a career.
I asked one singer-songwriter, a university student, whether he was paid for performing. No, he replied, although artists were given the incentive of £2 commission for every ticket they sold.
Earlier, the lead singer of one promising band mentioned that their latest single was available through iTunes or, if you couldn’t afford a 69p download, via Spotfiy. Ouch!
The festival fell at the end of Independent Venue Week, a week when glorious and not-so glorious pub-size venues are rightly celebrated up and down the country. Many have been struggling financially for years but, with some notable exceptions, generally seem to make just enough money to keep open.
Some venues attract fewer than 20-30 people for shows. Maybe less. The money they bring in scarcely covers the cost of cleaning toilets, as is clearly apparent. But independent venues live for the day when they are packed for a gig by the next-big-thing, with people who haven’t turned up for years staggering back to their ‘favourite’ local venue.
Anyone got the time?
Some independent venues could do more to attract customers. While they are happy to use social media to promote ticket sales, they often can’t be bothered to post stage times.
That aside, music would be poorer in 2017 if it wasn’t for places where you can watch live music for less than a tenner and buy a real pint, rather than over-priced lager in a can.
Back at the Icebreaker Festival, it was getting cold outside (no pun intended). The freezing night air was certainly no joke for the rough sleepers slumped in nearby shop doorways.
The number of rough sleepers in England rose by 16% last year and is roughly double that of 2010. Victims of seven years’ austerity politics, most homeless people will struggle to play much of a part in the wider ‘gig economy’ anytime soon.
For music is not the only place where the availability of work is increasingly haphazard and success often based on luck rather than talent. All of us could probably play a part in ensuring a fairer society so more people, musicians and otherwise, get greater opportunity to make the most of their lives. The problem is working out how to do it.