notes from waaay underground, Sept 2012
It’s hardly an original observation, but we’re in an unprecedented place with music right now. And that’s leaving aside the hopelessly blurred question of illicit downloads (although the idea that music should be a free, inexhaustible and perpetually-available resource, like sunlight or oxygen, is utterly self-defeating). (Strawman argument, anyone? Sod it – like I said, blurred.)
What we’ve got is an ever-more-entrenched top tier – the trad music biz – with a chokehold on all outlets still, despite everything. Shrinking but sucking up all the gravy, digging in, skimming off as much short-term profit on karaoke and career-path indie as possible… and then there’s practically everyone else. Okay, there are exceptions when someone interesting somehow gets over the fence, but you know what I’m saying.
“Everyone else” being the huge semi-pro DIY mass, squashed in a corner, playing the long game. Doing it for the love of it, waiting for a break, gambling on longevity – or persistence – or bloody-mindedness – or vision, call it what you will. (If the sheer volume of ever-accumulating stuff out there on the internet hasn’t made a nonsense of ideas like “back catalogue” and “posterity”, for unknowns anyway.) This in itself isn’t a new thing; it’s the extent of the lower tier that’s new. There simply aren’t enough outlets that pay – either in terms of making a living, or the finer commodity of sustained visibility. Of course the situation could eventually stabilize, even improve; something unexpected might come along and change the game again. Until then, though…
They believe in what they’re doing, these hidden dreamers, so they roll the dice and carry on regardless.
As will I, despite the discouraging recent experience of having a backing band blow up on the launchpad. Discouraging, not fatal – with 20/20 hindsight it’s best in the long run, for reasons I needn’t go into here. Gave me ideas on how I’d like to continue, which is something; time now to get on with it.
Another year, another gamble: thankfully, the work is its own reward. Clearly lots of other people feel the same.
sour grapes or the cold, sharp wine of truth? You decide. But it’ll cost ya… well, nothing actually
There’s a debate – which can only get more heated – about whether music should be free. About the dynamic created for makers and consumers of music by the Free Culture – or Freecult, as I prefer to call them because it sounds stoopider (of course, they’re too numerous to be an actual cult, and are in most cases motivated by the prevalent tech-enabled custom of lax, myopic greed rather than any coherent ideology). To clarify, these are the people who collect music like stamps – and never listen to 90% 0f it – rather than downloaders who then buy the product, or some of it anyway. Yes: Product.
Of course money should be involved in music. It’s been inextricably entwined with art since art existed; without patronage, no Iliad, no Odyssey, no Velvet Underground, no sustainable dance/electro music *ever* beyond the first amyl nitrate whiff of excitement, no X Factor (okay, baaad joke at the end there). True, the major labels are getting what they deserve. Unfortunately, the artists aren’t; while many I know or know of haven’t any problem in principle with giving stuff away – and this includes me – to “donate” the whole lot is, in essence, shutting out loads of artists who can’t afford to do that and sustain themselves or their work. As well as carrying a stigma of bargain-basement loserdom. This stuff tends to get downplayed in the current atmosphere of Future Boomer righteousness – or it did until recently. Strange that it’s taken so long to be examined at a grass-roots level: and what it took was a common enough, albeit unthinking, admission from a National Public Radio DJ (hardly the big bad Music Biz Man).
So yeah, £££. Obviously, it’s all in who the gelt comes from… corporate sponsorship, crowd-sourcing, arms deals… and who it goes to. On any lower echelon than superstar, it’s a vexed question (and I’m sick of labouring it, so will stop biting the hand that… sort-of… feeds now). Besides which, you can chop logic about the moral pros & cons all day, but personally? On a selfish level, I don’t really give a shit.
Perseverance for pennies: gotta be done, innit? Well, up to a point. Beyond that, it’s just slaughtering the golden goose.
If I could think of a viable strategy to get round this impasse, as hopefully someone will sooner or later, I’d be a fucking entrepreneur rather than a musician. Or possibly a writer for sites like Gizmodo.com who “refuted” David Lowery with a barrage of meaningless stats. But my point about sustainability – affordability – stands. In effect, it’s like a new form of something I’d hear horror stories about from the bad old days: Pay to Play. Who in their right mind wants that? (And uh, don’t quit the day job btw – assuming you’re lucky enough to have one.)
A Footnote: speaking of Pay to Play…
Putting together a tour without the cradle of logistic and booking support, I’ve noticed something interesting. I’m sure a lot of musicians in my kind of semi-legit position have run into something similar.
The era of literal Pay to Play (in London): a lot of venues demanded an upfront fee for the privilege of gigging to six uninterested alcoholics, the scarcely-more-animate sound engineer, and maybe two mates who were just there because they wanted into the keyboard player’s pants. A promoter with a great deal of sense and integrity (and taste, obviously, as an ally of mine) urged me on several occasions: Never, ever, ever, pay to play. It just encourages the practise, which must be stamped out. It’s clearly a self-defeating way to go, and I won’t insult your intelligence by hashing over why this individual was quite right. But a lot of venues – feeling the bite, so I fling no blame – are now getting into the habit of asking for a hire fee rather than actually promote a gig. Often, in context, this is fair enough; but the implications are uncomfortable.
This may seem rather off the point of the rant above. (God, I’m starting to moan as much as that St Saviour woman…) But it’s a symptom of the same fucked economic model. One alternative is free no-frills gigs, which in theory sounds nice but in practice means variable quality-control: there, see? Free stuff sucks. Can I buy some soil off you, please?
praise Jeezuz and pass the ammo
The video to my next single, Hard Science (released on Light Crude 28 May) can be viewed above. It was a lot of fun, albeit very fragmented, to make – not the least difficult was finding a vicar’s collar that fit comfortably and didn’t slip out to the side like a hideously broken collarbone. Anyway, now I know how those evangelicals feel: drunk and throbbing with THE POWER OF THE LORD. (God help us all.)
This is a one-off filmed story that was hosted by God Is In The TV zine. Watch it, it’s unusual (and very, very cheap; which by the way is a good thing).
There’s one more to run on GIITTV’s site, and I’ve got five others in reserve – look out for further news.
Another short story I filmed can be found on God Is In The TV, here:
http://tinyurl.com/62bjl2c It’s called Complaint from The Other World.
Also, the concluding part of The UnExplorers is now archived on my Youtube channel.
Check em out, they’re both freaky as hell.