The Reality of Music Outside the Commercial Mainstream

Anne-Marie Helder guesting with Halo Blind at Bilston Robin 2

The last couple of days have seen two good articles on the reality of making music outside the commercial mainstream. First, Rhodri Marsden in The New Statesman writes about the joy of being in a part-time band, which describes the reality for most bands I know. I can think of at least one musician who’s on record as saying the stability of a day job to pay the bills gives him more creative freedom as an artist.

Second, this piece in The Guardian, Teleman’s 10-step guide to succeeding as a modern indie band. The headline is misleading, since it has nothing to do with “indie” as a genre of music; most independent prog bands do all or most of the things in that list.

The comments against the latter do betray the sheer levels of ignorance out there when it comes to the realities of music at grassroots level. There’s the numpty who implies they’re an industry insider who claims it’s impossible to write a great song without agents and talent scouts beating at the door. If you’re under 25, conventionally pretty and willing to work within the narrowest of commercial formulas, maybe. In all other cases this person is speaking unadulterated cobblers.

Then there’s the twit who claims that anyone who doesn’t aspire to headlining stadiums shouldn’t be making music, mocking those who play “300 seat clubs”. Perhaps if you attended a few club gigs you might discover what live music is all about? And maybe the reason some artists don’t aspire to be the next Coldplay or Adele is because they don’t want to water down their music until it sounds like Adele of Coldplay? Or just maybe not everyone who wants to make music wants to be chewed up and spat out by the celebrity fame machine?

Too many people have bought into a rock’n'roll mythology that was never an accurate reflection of reality even in past decades when the music business had money to throw around, let alone now.

What is “success” for a musician nowadays? From my perspective it’s the artist being able to make the music they want to make on the scale they want to make it, and to attract enough of an audience to be able to continue doing so. That doesn’t have to mean headlining stadiums. It doesn’t even have to mean being able to quit the day job. It means being able to play with a full band rather than a acoustic guitar and a laptop, if that’s what you want to do. It means not having to water down your sound to fit someone else’s formula. It even means being able to play your own songs rather than covers.

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4 Responses to The Reality of Music Outside the Commercial Mainstream

  1. Demath says:

    Spot on. Prog, jazz and extreme metal musicians, to name just a small handful, aren’t hoping their music will suddenly become mainstream and they’ll become the next Beatles. For some that would be utter disaster – cf Kurt Cobain.

    Some musicians are keen to preserve the mystique and prestige of the rock ‘n’ roll myth, but that’s a kind of insecurity. The reality is that this is not the 70s, and life as a professional musician would be an unnecessary struggle for most who still want to make music others enjoy.

  2. John P. says:

    So are you going to be watching this new BBC 4 series with Rhod Gilbert about part-time bands then?

  3. Tim Hall says:

    I had an interesting conversation with a musician last night that contradicted the popular mantra that it’s live music that makes the money and recordings are a loss-leader.

    It might be true if you’re playing to a thousand people a night, and have an audience of 18-25 year olds who won’t spend money on recorded music. But something like the underground prog scene when people still buy CDs but don’t get to gigs in sufficient numbers, some bands can afford to make albums, but it’s not economically viable for them to play live.

  4. Synthetase says:

    Not surprising really. As one of those articles said, a very few get the really big crowds and the rest have to make do. I remember the blog post you wrote a while ago when a certain well-repected-aroud-here act got a dozen or so people showing up to a gig.

    The price of recording has fallen dramatically in recent years as the tools have become available to the masses. Publishing is also cheaper if you just put your album up on Bandcamp rather than getting it pressed.