Monday, 3 October 2016

The Culture Of Free In The Music Industry - And Why It Needs To Change

My day job, far away from music, involves working for two Local Authorities. Don't worry though, this isn't an essay on Building Regulations, (what I specialise in) although if anyone wants me to write one for them I can - feel free to get in contact to discuss.

When I want to go for a swim in one of my employers leisure centres I pay an entry fee the same as anyone else. When the bin men collect my rubbish, they do it because it’s funded through the Council Tax I pay, just like everyone else. I don’t ask the Council to collect it for free just because I work for the same Council. My employers pays me fairly and reasonably. I’m valued as an employee to do good professional work of a certain quality.

Now let’s take a look at the music industry. Compared with the sort of professional environment I work in it is frankly a bit of a disaster. There’s a certain culture of entitlement ingrained within the industry that expects certain things for free. And for those who want to sustain a career in the music industry, that’s not healthy or helpful.

Here’s just a couple of examples of where I believe a change of mindset is required:

The Guest List

I recently spoke to someone from a record label who told me that she only ever went to gigs that she was on the guest list for. She hadn’t purchased a ticket for years. What was worse, she seemed proud of this fact, telling me that she wouldn’t go to a show if she had to pay because she couldn’t afford it.  It would be like me turning up to my local swimming pool and insisting that I got in for free just because I worked for the same organisation. Unsurprisingly, if that actually happened the outcome would be that the pool would have to put its prices up to subsidise all the freeloading employees. Of course guest lists for most gigs are relatively small, but it has an impact on ticket prices for others which isn't good for business.

Edit: 18.25pm 3/10/2016 Following a number of comments on Twitter, some private emails and one below in the comments section I would like to make it clear that I am not against the guest list 100%. What I am against is people gaining free entry to something because of some loose connection they have to it. I wrote about this issue in the past when I helped run a small independent festival (see here) where a significant number of people tried to blag their way in for nothing purely because they claimed to know the band. If you are working during the gig (writing a review, you are the band's manager etc) then yes of course you should be able to have the opportunity to arrange (in advance) to attend the gig for free. But if you just happen to work in the music industry and know somebody who knows the band, that's not really a good reason to be on the guest list. 

Festivals That Don’t Pay Performers / Websites That Don’t Pay Writers

In giving this example I exclude any not for profit events and charity festivals.

Earlier this year in my home city of Portsmouth 100,000 punters were reported to have attended the ever growing Victorious Festival over two days. It was a fantastic show -a bargain as well. And that’s part of the problem.

Early bird tickets were just £20 a day to see the likes of Noel Gallagher, Manic Street Preachers, Public Service Broadcasting, Annie Mac and Mark Ronson performing. Also on the bill were over 100 local acts. The information I have is that virtually none of them were offered payment other than a ticket for both days of the festival.

Of course playing the festival meant that the bands get exposure for their work (the lazy argument now used by anyone trying to get somebody to do something for nothing and then benefitting themselves), an ego boost by saying they were playing a big festival, and each act did get free tickets for both days of the festival, not just the one they were playing. But there’s a huge invisible downside. In Portsmouth many local venues not associated with the festival are struggling. The Cellars, a small intimate space that put on early shows by the likes of Mumford & Sons and Gabrielle Aplin fairly recently closed its doors for the final time. The Wedgewood Rooms – Portsmouth’s most established and loved venue, a place that saw early shows by the likes of Oasis, The Stokes and The Killers  faces a constant battle. Of course there are lots of reasons for this, and not all of them can be attributed to a big festival that runs for one weekend of the year; but when you have a large festival on a venue’s doorstep charging not much more than the price of a typical gig ticket for a national touring band at the venue, it doesn’t take a mathematician to guess where the punter is more likely to spend their money. Of course you can argue ‘well that’s business’, but it’s a short sighted business that devalues the local music economy.

If venues shut because of poor ticket sales and part of that reason is that punters would rather attend one cheap festival than a number of smaller gigs, the impact will be huge. Where will the bands who grow to be future festival headliners cut their teeth and get the opportunity to get better and better at playing live than in professionally run music venues like The Wedgewood Rooms and The Cellars?

A flourishing local music scene will benefit everyone in the supply chain – right up to the big festivals – who will need new fresh headliners for the future. But unless those musicians are paid properly – which will enable them to invest that money into recording time, promotion, travel, equipment etc they won’t be able to develop their music. A bargain ticket might look great for the punter, but it’s a potentially short sighted concept.

Simple solution? Increase ticket prices. Pay all performers. Invest money back into the local gig economy and the quality will improve throughout – which is better for the punter's overall experience of live music.

Of course its not only musicians. A number of times I’ve been approached by website owners and music publications  and have been asked to write something for them. 90% of the time my response is ‘no’. Why? Because if what I am doing is work, then I should be paid fairly. Now of course there are many ‘hobby’ websites that don’t earn money and for those sites I will take a different approach. It’s like being asked to referee an amateur 5 a side football match. I wouldn’t expect to be paid for that. But if a professional team asked me to referee, then payment should be on the table. And if a professional puts forward the argument they can’t afford to pay  but it would be great experience / exposure for me to work for them, then I’d politely suggest that they need to revisit how they are financing and running their operation, because if they don’t value the people who work for them, then I don’t want to be part of what they do. Of course payment doesn't always have to be money - there are other ways to pay someone - but doing work for 'exposure' isn't one of them. There's already way too many people swimming in the sea of exposure and most of them are drowning without even a lifeguard to spot them.

The Rider (Edited 18:37 3/10/2016)

This piece has been removed following discussion with a number of industry professionals on Twitter and by email today. This article is titled 'The Culture Of Free In The Music Industry And Why It Needs To Change.' My original rather muddled discussion on riders therefore did not really fit into a discussion on the culture of free and so I have deleted it to be revisited at some further point. 

Further Edit (22:35 3/10/2016)

I'm still getting a lot of traffic to this post, so for anyone just discovering it may I also recommend a read of this fiery piece from Andy Inglis on The Quietus which is in connection with saving independent venues but has lots of relevance to this article (especially guest lists) which he describes as "a malignant tumour on the lactating breast of live music." Thanks to Roberta from the band Curxes from pointing me towards the piece. Read the article here


Scryst said...

Saw you getting some abuse on Twitter for this piece - interestingly every single person who gave you abuse works in the music industry. People who said it raised some valid points didn't appear to do so.

That probably says all you need to know about the music industry ha ha ha!

Unknown said...

Hmmm... I agree for the most part. However, a few points:

As a general I will only review a gig if I've been guest listed. If I pay to go to a gig (and I often do) I don't want to have to go in "work mode", I want the focus to be on me having fun (and not always glued to the stage and sober). I also consider my writing to be a promotional service, albeit a small one. If bands/promoters want to say no to my request for free entry that's totally fine, no harm done or offence taken, but I very much resent bands/promoters expecting me to pay for entry and review the gig. That would be like asking a lifeguard to pay for entry into your swimming pool. I appreciate that puts the price up for fans - perhaps instead it should put the band's price down - but short of PR paying for reviews, I don't see an alternative.

As for not paying writers, I take your point: if it feels like work, you should be paid for it. However, I find it frustrating when website owners/editors are cast as "baddies" for not offering to pay their writers. DW doesn't pay its writers, but I don't withdraw any money from the site either. Everything we earn goes back into maintaining it. In fact I give up a substantial amount of my time, include a week day when I might otherwise earn money from one of my three jobs, in order to run the site and create a platform from which writing careers can and have been sprung. So to suggest I'm somehow tight or that it's unfair not to pay DW's writers is very frustrating.

Breaking More Waves Blog said...

Hi Tiffany

Thanks for the comment - it's nice to get a comment on a blog post these days - they're so rare :)

Obviously when I wrote this piece I was in full on rant mode and it wasn't a 100% 'considered' piece. As anyone who knows me and the blog - it's not really my style - I'll leave considered constructive journalism to the professionals.

However, if I had written a more considered piece I would have put about a billion and one caveats on it and two of them would have been the points you address.

I fully agree that if you are writing a review you are working and need to be in the venue to do the work so the lifeguard analogy is a good one. The trouble is there are too many blaggers trying to get in on guest lists who aren't really working at all.

Also I agree with your website commentary.

Unknown said...

Oh yeah, no offense taken, I write in the same way! Some of the best articles are written without considering and structuring, and considering again - that can suck all the passion out of the argument.

Breaking More Waves Blog said...

Yeah this post is very much a case in point. I wrote the piece, banged it out, got some feedback and have amended it following that, and then updated further following further information people provided. I quite like the idea of my blog being like a conversation in the pub - we might not always agree but by sharing knowledge and opinions we become better informed.

Unfortunately much of this discussion now goes on on Twitter which I find poor for having decent conversations. It tends to end up with people either agreeing with each other in a what amounts to a back slapping exercise or getting into arguments / being quite aggressive - which I'm sure most people aren't.

oldierob said...

Having responded about guest lists on Twitter i felt compelled to return regarding paying acts. 140 characters wont work! Taking out the charity festivals as you rightly say. Personally I think this is a hard one. Getting admission for the two days may seem harsh however no act will succeed unless it can build it's support beyond the very local/family and friend fan base. I have had chats with a few bands about this. For the ones who move upwards they regularly tell me the same thing. It is critical to get out to draw in new fans. Yes social media works but nothing like a whole new bunch of people saying this act is really good when seen at a gig. So the chance to play to new people who wouldn't attend a gig is a great opportunity. As you know from organising a small festival yourself it is really really tough balancing the cash. It is a case of being upfront both ways. If you will be pulling people into a festival, who will then pay entrance fee, then you are in your language "working" and we all should be paid fairly for work.

If you are using it as a way of getting to play in front of a new crowd then it is about the festival and the act being fair and upfront. The festivals I am involved with do have acts that pay for free, some will get expenses covered for travel,some wont. All will be looked after carefully with free entrance for the whole festival, food, drinks, support on social media and much personal appreciation.

In effect its about a partnership of each helping each other.

It all becomes tougher with the larger, more commercial festivals. If you are spending masses on your bigger acts then shave it a little and increase your new act funding for the tireless team running that element of the festival. At the new act area a small amount really helps.

Breaking More Waves Blog said...

Thanks for the comments Rob - I do love a good old long comment like I used to get when blogs were in their heyday.

Yes I totally appreciate your views and as you say festivals can be a way of playing to a new crowd and if you're good win new fans. And as you say having been involved in running a small DIY festival where the initial upfront cash came from our own pockets I fully appreciate the difficulty of balancing the books. It really isn't easy - and a little scary as well when (as we were) you are relying on a walk up on the door on the day. Every penny counts.

However my concern with a festival like Victorious is that it's a huge festival now (it's nominated for best Major festival this year at the UK Festival Awards) and there's some evidence of it having a negative effect on other areas of the local gig economy. (This evidence isn't just my observations but comes from other people who have a deeper involvement). Simply by increasing ticket prices by £1 and using that money to invest back into the local gig economy, to my mind not only seems a very simple solution but a win win sustainable solution for everyone in the long term. As you say it's a partnership, but injecting some money into all elements of the partnership would really benefit it.

One of the reasons I wrote this post was because of conversations with some local musicians who feel very strongly about this issue. A £1 ticket price increase would allow bottom level local acts a small payment say £30-£50 through to bigger local bands being paid around £200. It would add real value to the partnership and help with basic band costs if nothing else.

Here's an extract from an interview I found with the festival organisers justifying not paying bands....

I asked Ben about one of the criticisms that has been levelled at the festival: they don’t pay local artists. ‘Local bands get free wristbands for the day they’re playing as well as the other day, worth £70 each, and they also get complimentary drinks. When we ask them to play we are very clear about the terms and we never get any complaints. Local bands get the opportunity to play to several thousand people in a culturally diverse festival. They jump at the chance.’

Just to clarify £70 is the on the day price for a weekend ticket - this year you could buy them in advance for £40. As for playing to several thousand people, the vast majority of local acts do not play to that number of people. They are playing smaller stages and many either clash with the big names who draw the crowds or are on very early in the day when the crowds are relatively small. Sure the weekend wristband is decent and the more switched on acts will get PRS payments - but it's the longer term effects that I'm concerned about. I'd like the festival organisers do just be that tiny bit more responsible and invest with their cash in local talent.

oldierob said...

Ah the "worth" quoted as the highest price a deal is done at patter. "worth" for me is the lowest price two people agree to contract for. If you then pay more then you are paying more than something is "worth" because the seller has agreed a deal at a lower price. As Victorious has grown into a major and successful festival it is one I feel could and should explicitly add a levy to help support and ensure there is a future pipeline of great acts, not only for itself but in general. I would love it to say £1 of every ticket will go to a trust or similar that helps new local musicians play live. Similar to the PRS funding which is really helping many very talented acts gain experience and increase their exposure to new people.

Dan Twining said...

I like, and broadly agree with your blog post! Apologies in advance for the essay :)

I certainly know people who aren't even strictly from 'the industry' who insist on guest list to shows, wearing it as some kind of badge of honour - look how IN with the band I am. Those guys who ain't getting paid tonight...

It's unfortunate, especially when asking for list to a show that isn't going to sell out, and costs around £6/7. There seems to be no consideration that 99.9% of the time, it's costing the band money to get to this show, and every non-paying space on the guest list takes away the promoter/bands/sound engineer's ability to simply break even!

It's all well and good blaming declining music sales for the lack of money in the industry, but when those who are in a position to pay insist on guest list just 'cause, PARTICULARLY for lower level bands, it stinks of hypocrisy to me. Especially when industry people should understand the struggles of independent artists and lack of investment/development opportunity from majors. Seems that most can afford that £6 beer but not the £5 entry fee... curious! Personally I believe it comes down to a lack of perceived value in, and possibly respect for, grass roots music. Though it's not limited to grass roots only.

My only criticism is that some of your points are a little idealistic. I don't see a scenario in which a smaller festival pays every single performer, especially if some of them aren't strictly bringing any paying 'customers'. But that does not mean there shouldn't be a legitimate value exchange, using the lazy term of 'exposure' is ridiculous because of it's relative intangibility - it means nothing. Of course there are plenty of things a festival can do to support these bands that aren't getting paid: being transparent and doing what you can to give them a platform, whether it's a small feature, some social media promotion, some things don't cost money after all.

Lots of these issues are symptomatic of the state of the industry as a whole, as a guy who has been in a few mid-level bands that ended up quitting mostly because of money, I've seen how hard it is to get one of your mates to spend £4 to see your band locally.. mates who won't think twice about spending £40 to go to a gig at the O2.

It'd be reductive to suggest these things are solely screwing the industry, but there does seem to be a big problem with the value placed on music in general. Whether it be from your parents' and friends' perceptions (the old 'go get a real job' routine), the amount of government funding, your average punters unwillingness to pay for a show, or labels' aversion to take risks on unproven talent.

So many say they can't live without music, but do you wanna pay for it huh?

P.S. this all may come across a little negative, there are still a lot of good people out there who appreciate, pay for, and value music and the people involved with it. The future is bright, I feel there are just very very common misconceptions and a lack of understanding from those who aren't involved with the biz.

Breaking More Waves Blog said...

Hi Dan thanks for your great comment and glad to see you largely agree. Yes some of my points are a bit idealistic, but this post was written in a bit of a mad half hour rant and wasn't too 'considered'.

However, just a couple of things, Re your comment: " I don't see a scenario in which a smaller festival pays every single performer, especially if some of them aren't strictly bringing any paying 'customers'." I'd agree with this - having had experience of running a small festival with a limited number of ticket sales and relatively small artists, it's very hard to pay every single act, but there are other ways you can help them. However - Victorious isn't small. It's been nominated for Best Major Festival at this year's UK festival awards. And the tickets are very cheap (I would argue too cheap!) - so by putting an extra quid or so on each ticket would still make it very affordable but would enable payment to be made to local acts. This cheapness has a negative effect on the local live music scene as well - devaluing other gigs in the local area.

Also re: Getting your mates to spend £4 to see a local band but they'd happily pay £40 for a band at the o2. What I'd like to see (again idealistic I know) is venues like the 02 giving something back and supporting the grass roots venues more - after all they are the breeding ground of future o2 stars.

Thanks for your comments, it's been great to see this post to get a fair amount of reaction on line. Not everyone agrees with my points and that's cool, it would be boring if they did (and probably no need for the post) but hopefully it's got a few people thinking / talking! Including myself

Anonymous said...

My favourite justification I ever read for any old music industry so and so being on a guest list was 'because gigs are where the music industry do their networking so I need to be there'.