Last night I had a very good gig with The String Project (and Got my Jo-Mo working and Jim Telford, and the Local Supercluster – but I wasn’t part of those elements). I say very good because the music went well, the organisation held together, the audience were appreciative and there were no serious technical, logistical or musical balls-ups. And when (sadly it’s not always) a String Project / Local Supercluster event comes together like that, it really is something out of the ordinary. But it certainly helped that we got enough cash on the door to pay for the room hire and most of the other expenses, so we didn’t end up at a loss out of it I don’t think.
The sort of people that write and speak about change in the economics of the music industry tend to be the sort of people that are enthusiastic about the new, particularly the technological new. And so they often emphasise the advantages of artists being able to communicate and interact directly with their audiences / followers/ fans / parasocial friends (depending how far you take the social media / apparent personal contact aspect of post-Facebook marketing, Katy Perry) without going through big corporate mediators who formerly controlled recording, print, marketing, broadcasting and even live performance spaces. And fair enough, it is nice to be able to make recordings and publish or sell them directly, and keep the take, to set up your own website and mailing list and communicate to people without getting a marketing budget and buying space from a magazine, to have control and to be able to do things without getting the backing of corporate managers who may have very different priorities and perceptions of value from both you, the musician, and the audience(s). And it’s certainly nice in principle to not have to pay their profit margin out of your work.
But, with taking over the vast majority of control and, in several areas, profit (where charging for music is still working or people have found ways of monetising it indirectly) comes taking over the vast majority of the risk as well. Sure, you can record to pro standard without a record label – but you still need studio time, a pro engineer paid by the day, duplication services if you want hard-copy, promotional activity of one sort or another. Under the ‘old system’, this was probably more expensive but was also paid for by a record label, paid back out of the profits when things sold. And you’d get an advance if you were trusted by the label to deliver financially. Now, you can do it yourself, do what you want, costs have come down a lot it’s true, but the artists pays them upfront and hopes to get enough sales / paid downloads / streams / live bookings out of it to make it back with interest. At the least you’re kind of lending the relatively newly liberalised music market the money and hoping to profit on the investment, in a very volatile environment.
Same for booking your own gigs – no management control, no being put on a bill with totally unsuitable other acts, no daft restrictions or requirements to put x number of people on the guest list just to demonstrate there are people coming because of you, no cuts going to organisers, promoters and full-time marketeers. But, you’ve paid for the room (maybe the PA as well) in advance, and almost certainly for the promotion (probably worked on it quite a lot as well) – and if you don’t make it back in ticket sales, tough luck. (If you’ve rented out the room, the odds of you getting a look in at the bar tab are minimal – although healthy bar takings can be key to getting return invitations from venues that pay their acts.) Again, financial risk sits with the artist.
Gigs paid by ticket sale split are increasingly common, and the organisers tend to be quite self-righteous about them because they do offer financial reward – they’re not simply unpaid or pay-to-play, and at least the musicians don’t have to buy a wodge of tickets and be out of pocket unless they sell them. But of course the musicians get more or less according to their ability, not chiefly to perform well, but to pull in an audience. The marketing efforts of organisers are very frequently somewhat perfunctory – and if you’ve just halved your financial risk by splitting it with the performers, that seems like sensible business.
So if you wonder why barely-semi-pro musicians seem desperately up themselves, only contacting you when they have a gig to promote and that seems to be every other week, then using all contact channels from Facebook events to texts and forcing flyers into your hands to convince that this gig is unique and special and you’ll forever regret not going – it’s because our prospects of continuing to be able to afford a celebratory pint afterwards depend on our success in the very un-English activity of blowing our own trumpets. Really loudly.