Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"A toxic pit of snake-infested slime. And diamonds."

On loving music and hating the music industry

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money
trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and
pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.
There's also a negative side.”
Hunter S Thompson

What do you need to make music? Well, the basics are these: you need to be alive. You need to open your mouth. You need to sing a tune. That’s it. In its primitive form, that’s music and you, me, all of us are musicians. Music is in all of us, for all of us. Maybe you grow to like hitting rhythms out of bits of furniture with sticks, or start messing about with an old piano or guitar. And perhaps that’s all you ever do. Perhaps that’s enough. 

That’s music. Glorious, free.

But soon enough, you catch a noise on the radio, and it’s complicated, layered, and so seductive. You see that noise being made on TV or the internet and people have all this...stuff they’re using to produce it. Shiny guitars, keyboards, gigantic amplifiers. You think: I want that. I want to sound, look, be like that. You scrimp and save or ask your parents for the instrument of your choice. You need to learn how to play, so you get lessons or books or instructional videos. You need the gear to download songs or play shiny discs that contain  music. There are concerts to attend. Festivals, tickets to buy.And so it goes.

That’s the music business. And it’s expensive.

Being a consumer isn't enough. Something in you, that same impulse to sing, wants to get your music out there, to perform in front of other people. Maybe you’ve been ill, unhappy at home, lonely, strange, bullied, isolated. Maybe you’re an egomaniacal asshole. Maybe you’re just very, very good at singing or playing or writing, or all three. So you form a band, and you need to practise, and gig, and suddenly you need to record somewhere other than your bedroom (though you’ve already invested in a Mac, microphones and some software equivalent in quality to a 24-track 1980s studio charging £50 an hour). You need a manager, and there are managers out there scouting for someone like you, because, hey, you're really good at this. They’re managers because they’re not musicians, and they so want to be. Or they want to be around musicians, they like their music, they like them. But most of all they want to make money.

And you want to make money too, because then you can  give up your job (good, bad or brilliant, it’s still not being a musician and getting paid for it). You need people to pay you, and that’s the job of the audience. But how to get that money from them to you? What do they pay you for, these days? CDs are almost dead, everything appears to be dirt cheap or free on the internet. Gigs, yes, but how do you get gigs, how do you get an audience?

And this is the music industry. And as usual, as ever, it’s a toxic pit of snake-infested slime…and diamonds.

Tell you the truth: I hate the music industry. I hate everything from the deceptive, hopes-raising college courses in how to be a rock'n'roll star  to the ruthless Let’s-Create-A-Generation-Of-Alcoholics drink marketing bonanza that is T in the Park. I hate the self-important hangers on, the music shops and recording studios (why do they still exist?) that prey on the rock star fantasies of the young; the concert promoters who rip off everyone within reach, but especially artists and audiences. I hate the arrogance of brainless teenage pop stars who think a pair of leather trousers  lends them intellectual authority, and the half-educated tattooed pontificators who imagine three bedraggled hits  decades ago lends them the right to comment in lordly fashion on everything from nationalism to naturism, Kant to Kierkegaard. I hate the fact that cheap and easy technology has meant far, far too many bad, not very good and quite good musicians are releasing 'records' or attempting to 'make it'. I hate the arts bodies who judge bands worthy or unworthy of grants, the innumerable conferences on topics like ‘portfolio musicianship’ and ‘establishing your brand’. I hate relic guitars (the selling of artificially aged instruments). I hate the DJs and  critics who won't criticise, the newspapers and magazines and radio shows so compromised by the stars they need to interview or the festivals they sponsor that all insight has been chucked out the Winnebago window for the sake of a press pass or 'celebrity access'. I hate the way so many in the media are suckered by the deadly charm of performers into thinking they're really really their new best friends. And as for the self-congratulatory awards ceremonies...not to mention the tickle me, shag me,  begging bowl phenomena like Lickstarter, Plead Music and all those other horrible percentage-for-doing it fundraising abominations.

I hate the way everyone is obsessed with the making of money. And not just making a living, but a LOT of money. The way people look back with yearning to the 70s, when half-assed guitar players were buying mansions in the Suffolk countryside, record companies had drug slush funds and bands could allegedly be ‘nurtured’ by them for years because the moguls could afford to take the long view. Which is utter rubbish, actually, as far more artists ended up as one-album failures on the scrapheap or were ruthlessly exploited and cast aside as were successful.

Just like today, the weak went to the wall. The ones who made it weren't the most talented. They were the toughest, the most ambitious, the ones with the commitment, the energy, the fitness, ruthlessness and the desperation required. And they had people around them who were just the same.

But here’s what I hate most of all: The way music, once the flag bearer for rebellion and outrage, for the hopes and dreams and loves and hatreds of  generations...once art, for God’s sake, proper, functioning creative art, has been absolutely suckered by the forces of bad business. Not big business. Bad business. The companies you don't, in your sensible moments, want anything to do with. And representatives of the ‘new music industry’ all say, well, nobody’s making money from selling records these days, everyone’s stealing music on line. Thieves! Thieves! The public are all thieves

Ignoring the fact that this is the very public the artists must depend on, need as an audience. So, they say, we must sell the music to somebody. Let the artists be sponsored. Let them be branded, with corporate tattoos on their foreheads if necessary. Stating which company they personify the values of. 

Now, the use of music in commercial contexts is one thing. It has always been the case that songs get hijacked, if the songwriter and singer is willing, for advertising, film soundtracks, TV shows. It’s bad, but it’s not an absolute betrayal, if you’re careful about which commodity you allow to utilise your creativity, and reserve the right to bite the hand that feeds at all times. 

But to become the face of an organisation, to ‘become the brand’ as marketing parlance has it? If you are a creative artist, or believe yourself to be such, saying important things and dealing honestly and directly with the hopes, fears and desires of your audience, that is unacceptable. You are  Martine Activia McCutcheon or Billy Kaliber Connolly, George Nespresso Omega Clooney or any number of hapless past sell-by-date sports stars. You are nothing but an actor or a celebrity. At best a light entertainer. You have sacrificed your integrity, your work,the trust of your fans. You have destroyed your relationship with your audience and sold, well and truly, your soul. 

I know. Negative. This is all rantingly negative. So. Is there a solution to the 'need' musicians have for money if they are to continue performing? 

Well, maybe. Here we go. Some suggestions:

1 -Avoid the music 'industry' altogether. If you want to make music, assume you’ll be doing it for nothing and get a job to support yourself. If you’ve got rich parents, use their money. Marry someone with a decent job (this is quite common, as far as I can see, in Scotland). Be subsidised by love. And you can look after the weans as well.
2- Find a manager who, like all good managers used to, will invest his or her own money in you. And time. Who believes in you and your music, and is thinking long term. Who is honest and has great social skills. And some money, obviously.
3- Listen, if I really like your stuff, I will buy your concert tickets, put on a house concert for you, buy your vinyl records with download codes or your CDs if they come with something I can value as a souvenir. Forget all this garbage about 'making digital pay'. Put everything online in low quality for free. Capture the interest of an audience. Sell the good stuff at gigs or from your own website. 
4- If you're a music fan, if you love and respect music and musicians, and you’ve got money, then think about becoming a rock'n'roll (or folk) philanthropist. There have always been people like this in music and the arts. Fans with deep pockets. But maybe there should be  a network of these folk, maybe a structure should be provided which will enable them to contribute to bands they genuinely like, helping them release music, travel, gig, promote themselves… without being enslaved by any one corporate entity.
5- This ‘philanthropic network’ would act like a non-profit record company, with an A&R team actively seeking and developing new talent. There could, but wouldn't have to be, some kind of Government involvement, perhaps fund-matching with private companies. All of whom would have the right to advertise in their own publicity material the fact that they contribute to the scheme. No individual company or person would be allowed to exploit bands for their own commercial purposes, however.
6- Don't assume you’re going to be rich. Don't give up your day job. Music is no longer a passport to wealth beyond the dreams of Beckham. Do it because you love it. Because you've got something to say. Because you want to change the world. Do it because you have to. Because you're brilliant at it. Because it's who you are. Really, do it because you don't have an option. Otherwise, stop. Or stick to karaoke and folk club floor spots.
7- Always have a back up plan.
8- Oh, almost forgot. Never, ever become the figurehead for an advertising campaign involving banks.

Copyright Tom Morton 2014. All rights reserved. No reproduction online or in print, in whole or in part without the express permission of the copyright holder


jimra56 said...

Great rant Tom :-)

Stewart Kettles said...

Tom, great as usual. So much of the beautiful things in life are corrupted by money, music is just one of the casualties.

Unknown said...

That was a good read.

Although it did highlight that I must be the only band manager that is truly happy doing it for the love of the game.

(I have genuinely never made a penny.)

iainisontour said...

6- Don't assume you’re going to be rich. Don't give up your day job. Music is no longer a passport to wealth beyond the dreams of Beckham. Do it because you love it. Because you've got something to say. Because you want to change the world. Do it because you have to. Because you're brilliant at it. Because it's who you are. Really, do it because you don't have an option. Otherwise, stop. Or stick to karaoke and folk club floor spots.

Ok so if you dont give up your day job, how exactly do you progress past your local music scene? If this logic was applied all over then we would very quickly run out of music to get excited about. Getting music out to an audience involves alot of touring, time and effort that means keeping a job is pretty much impossible. I dont support rbs however if this opportunity gives the singer you are obviously referring to the chance to continue to make her art and support herself whilst doing so then surely thats a good thing for everyone concerned?

I strongly disagree with your comments about making lots of money and "wealth beyond the dreams of Beckham." I work in the music industry and know for a fact that most artists I work with don't make a lot of money, but do manage to survive and make a living, work their asses off and are incredibly grateful for the position they are in. Its not easy thats for sure, but it is possible, and if they took the advice to "avoid the music industry all together" there is no way they would be where they are today. Also you would never have heard the music, which is kind of the whole point is it not?

Jane Greenhalgh said...

Tom, I admire your courage in saying, articulately, what you think. You certainly didn't deserve the heap of (some of it very personal) opprobrium that was heaped on your head as a result of the FB post. My own feeling is plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

I spend my working life teaching piano for a living (being one of your many wannabees – singer, songwriter, pianist, who never quite ‘made it’ in the music industry (thank God – the exploitation of young females being altogether a different topic for another day)). However, I love music, want to be immersed in music, and it breaks my heart, on occasion, that I do not have the wherewithal to share my passion and talent with others in a way that feeds my ego and makes me feel wanted and loved.

Music, as I frequently tell my students, is a soul to soul communication and is one of the most important, naked, and wondrous elements of being human. And so I share your revulsion and visceral reaction to music being commodified, and the justification of the prostitution of musicians ‘just so they can put bread on the table’.

BUT, it has ever been thus. Whilst my heart is immersed somewhere between U2 and the Choir of Young Believers, my need for food on the table (or university accommodation for my offspring) leads me to spend a lot of time researching some of the great musicians and communicators of bygone eras. There are not many musicians who were recognised and rewarded in their lifetime. Many died in penury and before their time. Much of the most wonderful ‘classical’ music of all time came from a place of disease, anguish and broken hearts – Bach losing 10 of his 20 children, Mozart dying in poverty and dumped in an unmarked grave, Chopin dying of consumption. Beethoven, deaf and isolated – totally unable to compose for several years after witnessing the siege of Vienna. All only lightly recognised during their lifetimes, and only in the 20th Century when music could be reproduced for a wider audience, reaching the kind of recognition that they craved.

In order to feed themselves and their children, many were forced to take menial jobs, and those whose composition survives at all, were the ones who were lucky enough to find a philanthropic sponsor, who paid for them to live and compose. Had McDonalds, or RBS, or Wonga been around in Mozart’s day, I have no doubt at all he would have taken his tics to their boardroom and lambasted them into taking him on board, just so that he could get his music out there. HIS need to be wanted and loved and his music to be heard. His voice, his passion. His need to communicate whatever was in his troubled soul.

So, I wonder, does it matter? The cover of Lou Reid’s Perfect Day survives as an unusual piece of music long after whatever it was advertising has long been forgotten. Will Rachel’s music survive the association with RBS. If she’s good enough, yes. Not so sure about the guitarist with Wonga, mind, but if the music and the musician and what they are saying MATTERS enough, they will rise above where they get their money from. Does anyone remember who sponsored Chopin?