Tag Archives: The Music Business

Showtimes?

This is a bit of a rant.

Why do so few venues publish the stage times and curfew times of their gigs? London venues are generally good at this, but it’s a very different story out in the sticks. Does it not occur to them that some rock fans in niche genres are willing to travel significant distances by train? Knowing whether or not the show will finish before the last train home is a significant deciding factor on whether or not to attend. Even if it’s “must see” gig by a favourite band, it’s useful to know whether or not you need to book a B&B; there’s been one gig where I could have saved a lot of money if I’d known about the early curfew.

Even if most people either go by car or live close enough that a taxi home is affordable, surely every single extra punter through the door is worth it? Especially those who don’t have to drive home and might be able to spend more money at the bar?

That’s before we get to the ridiculous guessing game over whether the advertised start time is doors or the actual start of the show. Rock clubs and provincial arts centres seem to have entirely different definitions on what it means, so you either end up spending half an hour in freezing rain outside the venue, or risk missing the beginning of the show.

What does it cost venues or bands to make this information available?

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Overpriced boxed sets from legacy acts who don’t need the money harm grassroots music far, far more that YouTube or Spotify could ever do. Just think how many smaller prog bands could have sustainable careers from the money spent on the latest £378 Pink Floyd one.

Posted on by Tim Hall | Comments Off

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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Music Journalism in an Age of Niches

The shenanigans over the Guardian end-of-year list are surely a sympton of far deeper problems. The internet-era music world is fragmented into myriad overlapping niche scenes, and it’s harder for one publication to cover it all. But to cover a small subset of niches and pretending it’s the “mainstream” doesn’t work. Because beyond the mass-market corporate pop of Adele and Coldplay there is no mainstream. It’s all niches.

The Guardian is full of former NME types who have grown accustomed to acting as gatekeepers and tastemakers. But it’s a different world now; what worked in 1995 isn’t going to fly in 2015. If a broadsheet wants to continue with in-depth music coverage and wants to continue to be relevant, it needs to reinvent itself.

To start with, they must engage with those niche scenes they had been pretending weren’t relevant, and ensure they have the writers, either staff or freelancers, who understand those scenes.  Only then can they genuinely have have the broad coverage of music they currently only claim to.

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Scott Weiland and the Toxic Mythology of Rock

Some strong words from the ex-wife of late Scott Weiland reported in The Guardian

At some point, someone needs to step up and point out that yes, this will happen again – because as a society we almost encourage it. We read awful show reviews, watch videos of artists falling down, unable to recall their lyrics streaming on a teleprompter just a few feet away. And then we click ‘add to cart’ because what actually belongs in a hospital is now considered art.

I find myself in complete agreement with that sentiment.

Some ‘edgy’ types will probably dismiss me as a boring old square, but I utterly despise the way rock mythology glamourises self-destructive behaviour. It has destroyed too many lives, taken people well before their time, and wrecked careers of those it failed to kill outright. The ghoulish circus surrounding the late Amy Winehouse during her final downward spiral left me sick to the stomach, and I know I lost my temper  with one music journalist over that.

The music industry has blood on its hands.

In my case it probably comes from having met so many creative musicians over the years. They’re not larger-than-life characters in a reality TV soap opera, they’re real flesh-and-blood human beings, and I’d hate to see any of them go the way of Scott Weiland, Amy Winehouse or far too many others.

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The Legality of Ripping CDs

So the High Court has jusr overturned the previous government decision that it was legal to copy your own CDs for personal use, such as ripping them onto your iPod or phone. Musician Ben Bell, for one, is not impressed

As a consumer I feel this is far from fair, but as a musician I am absolutely livid.

If, as a consumer, I have bought music I feel I have paid my dues and should be allowed to listen to it how I please. It is clear what my expectation is: I am buying the music in order to listen to it. I am not buying it in order to listen to it on a specific device, I am paying for the right to listen to your music. Any claim that I should be required to pay again if I wish to listen to the same music digitally, or to have the convenience of not carrying it back and forth between my house and car, is purely a cynical attempt to over-complicate things with the sole purpose of wringing extra money out of what is in reality a very simple transaction.

But presumably as a musician, I see the other side of this? Well actually no, not at all. It’s as a musician that this particularly angers me.

This is petty, wrong-headed and self-defeating stuff by the music industry and the Musicians’ Union should be ashamed of themselves for being part of it.

He’s right, of course. The idea that people copying music from legally-purchased CDs on to other devices represents lost sales of paid downloads is coming from the same place as the claims we used to hear that illegal downloading represented lost revenue greater than the entire GDP of the nation. Which is clearly utter nonsense.

The whole thing is a cynical exercise in corporate rent-seeking, seeking levies on hard disks and music players to recover this “lost” 58 million pounds that doesn’t actually exist outside the imaginations of record company bean-counters.

It’s difficult to believe that anyone in their right mind would attempt to enforce this. Not even Lars Ulrich would be stupid enough to piss off their own paying customrs in that way. Any musician with the remotest of clues ought to understand that their ability to earn revenue from music is totally dependent on the continued goodwill of their audience.

Of course, given the way people listen to music nowadays, if everyone was really prevented from copying the contents of CDs to other formats, what would actually happen would be the complete collapse of the CD market as anyone still paying for music would just buy downloads.

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A Model For Streaming?

Fair StreamingAnil Prasad of Innerviews has written a follow-up to his earlier “Self-Destruct Button” piece and concludes that A Fair Music Streaming Model is Possible.

He makes the point that the 10-quid-a-month streaming model is only viable for those who can take advantage of scale. It can work for the Taylor Swifts, Kanye Wests and Muses of the world because of their vast audiences. It can work for the major record labels because of the vast back catalogues of music they’re sitting on, music that has long since earned back its production and promotion costs, much of it from pre-internet years. In both cases, all those tiny fractions of pence per stream add up.

But for new music in niche genres it doesn’t work and cannot replace paid downloads or physical product as a source of revenue. But there is another way, and involves artists and labels outside the major label system opting out of Big Music’s streaming and setting up their own alternative.

Mendelson has come up with the following model for a fair streaming service, involving 90% of all revenue going to either the artist or indie label:

The first listen to all tracks is always free of charge. The second listen, and any listen thereafter, is paid for in one of the following ways, with the listener choosing to:

Rent the track for one play for 10 cents, much like putting a dime in a jukebox.

Buy the track for $1, which then makes it possible to both download it, as well as stream it forever at no additional cost.

Stream the entire service’s catalog for a subscription fee, but at a much higher price point than Big Music — potentially $40–60 a month. Remember, the goal is to ensure the artists and labels get adequately paid. The $10 per-month charged by Apple Music and Spotify will never, ever lead to meaningful compensation for musicians.

I’m sceptical that there are that many hardcore music fans willing to pay fifty quid a month for streaming alone, especially if things become balkanised with multiple competing services each offtering overlapping but incomplete catalogues. But I’m willing to be proved wrong on this. There also might be space for intermediate teirs; how much per month might people be willing to pay to be able to stream the entire catalogue of a specific label, for example?

As for the number of free streams, the price per stream thereafter or the price per download, perhaps that’s something for the artists or labels to decide rather than a one-size-fits-all model defined by the streaming service? Different genres of music appeal to different age groups with different amounts of spare case and different levels of artist loyalty.

Another issue concerns independent artists who were once signed to major labels. There are bands like Marillion who once saw major success (“And now you’re touring stadium, you let it go too far“), then reinvented themselves once they’d fallen off the mainstream radar and been dropped by the major label. Others released one or two major label albums that flopped my major label standards, but still gathered a big enough fanbase to sustain themselves as independent artists.  Fans of those acts would expect to find their entire works in one place rather than have to go back to Spotiplay for their early albums. But would the majors want to play ball, or would they consider a streaming service geared towards the needs of independent artists a threat to their own business models?

But in the end, something along the lines of Anil Prasad’s proposal needs to happen if we want to continue having a vibrant and diverse music scene.

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It seems as though “Gamers are over” is the new “Rock is dead”. We’ve been hearing that rock is dead from people that have never liked rock in the first place, but rock has always refused to go away.

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Matt Stevens asks for help

On Matt Stevens’ Facebook page:

I’m not moaning, but sometimes it’s a challenge making music that doesn’t fit in. Promoters etc want to fit you into easy boxes. If it’s not “traditional prog” or “straight post rock” (as some one described their taste in music to me) or something else that it’s easy to define then it makes it difficult.

I think me and the band are lucky to have an audience at all and in the UK at least through hard gigging and shaking hands it’s kind of worked. But on paper if you’ve not seen us it can be a “hard sell”, no vocals etc

I’ve previously described Matt’s band The Fierce and the Dead as “A punk version of King Crimson”, which I know doesn’t really do them justice, but was the best I could come up with at the time. His own solo material is more varied and touches a lot more bases, especally on his most recent album.

Being difficult to pigeonhole is a double-edged sword. It can be harder for promoters to get a handle on them, but it also gives opportunities to have feet in multiple camps. For example, TFATD’s occasional partners in crime Trojan Horse played a prog festival, and the next week announced they’d be supporting The Fall. A more generic neo-prog or post-punk act would not be able to do that.

The next thing is to get gigs outside the UK, without losing lots of money. That’s the challenge. How hard can it be?

Any suggestion? Matt built up his audience in Britain by doing a lot of supports, where his solo instrumental act was something a bit different from the typical acoustic singer-songwriter, and by tirelessly flyering the queues for just about every prog gig in London. What would work over a wider geographical area?

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GamerGate vs Music Journalism

Gamergate still seems to show little sign of dying down, and forms part of the much larger cultural wars that have been raging across the tabletop RPG and SFF worlds over the past couple of years. As is usual for the internet, the loudest and most extreme voices are getting all the attention, and all nuance is lost.

I don’t really know much about the current state of video game journalism, so I don’t know quite how accurate the accusations and counter-accusations I’ve been seeing might be. But they do suggest there are parallels with the state of music journalism and criticism.

Good criticism is an important part of any artistic ecosystem. Critics certainly have a role in publicising and promoting great art. It should go without saying that constructive criticism plays a part in making good art better. And, whatever some fanboys might say, criticism does have a role in calling out bad art that’s undeserving of anyone’s time and money. There is much in the music world that is derivative, formulaic and clichéd. There is art that is tasteless and offensive for its own sake. And there is pretentious nonsense that is nowhere near as clever as it likes to think it is.

But as every music fan ought to know, there is as much bad criticism as there is bad music. There are reviews that seem little more than regurgitated press releases. There are unfairly negative reviews that fail to engage with what the artist is trying to do. There are reviews that have an obvious and unsubtle agenda shared by neither artist nor audience. And the cardinal sin of criticism is still reviewing the audience rather than the performance, usually accompanied by a sneer.

Does any of that sound familiar?

But ultimately both bad art and bad reviews have an absolute right to exist, and only become a problem when they start drowning out everything better. This has been a recurring problem in the music world, but has slowly faded away as the internet has eroded the powers of the old gatekeepers. Is it the same in the world of video games?

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