This article was originally published in Louder Than War magazine.
A great number of UK music artists I admire now use crowd-funding platforms like PledgeMusic or Indiegogo to raise cash from fans, to fund albums, videos, or touring. It’s very quickly been normalised in the music industry, to the point that you’ll almost never hear a bad word spoken about these platforms. Unusually, they’re popular with mainstream upcoming artists, the companies around them and also fully independent, self-described DIY or underground artists.
But something in me finds them disconcerting. I admit I’ve not once contributed money to an artist’s Pledge campaign. Each time I hear about one, even when I adore the artist, my heart sinks. Yet people clearly feel it works and there are a pile of happy (on the surface at least) customers. It’s a perfectly legitimate way to fund music in the new online paradigm.
So, what’s my beef?
As hugely successful US crowd-funding company Kickstarter launches in the UK; for the first time offering a serious competitor to PledgeMusic, it’s worth considering the case against, if only to enable a debate when the narrative is so blandly positive. Full disclosure: I’ve never tried it myself. Xtra Mile Recordings did run a successful Pledge campaign to replace stock (including my albums) destroyed in the depot fire (after the London riots) but I have no personal experience of running one. Trying to figure out why I’m not into them, here’s what I’ve come up with:
The emperor’s new clothes. Wasn’t half the point of going online to get rid of third parties? Instead it’s a messy battle. We binned major labels but got trapped in the price-controlled, tax dodging chaos of Amazon and iTunes, even when Bandcamp gave us a cleaner alternative. Then along came this whole new generation of third parties, jumping in ahead of the distributors to get their share, before the music’s even made. And because the process is automated, artists and punters alike seem blind to an obvious truth; at a basic fundamental level, web-based platforms are the same old villains wearing a hipper jacket. Yet again they find a thing that artists (wrongly) believe they can’t do alone, then slide in between artist and audience by offering that thing as a service, in order to cream off profit.
I’m convinced almost any artist with a moderate fan-base can crowd-fund just as easily, with less commitment, more control and a greater overall ROI (return on investment), just by having conversations with the right people. What is it about these formal frameworks that let the artist off the hook of asking personally for support, when it’s usually the exact same people who end up contributing anyway? You want someone’s money, fucking go and ask them. Write a letter. It feels as if everyone’s playing at grown-ups by using a third party website as a dressing-up box.
That’s too much money. For running a largely passive, artist-driven web-based platform (nothing more complex than Flickr, Instagram, Facebook or a hundred other free sites) with a simple financial processing structure bolted on, these companies charge 15% of revenue – and are less than transparent to funders, who are often only vaguely aware that there’s a percentage taken at all. And that’s a lot. That’s what a music manager or booking agent took in the old days, for doing a massive load of work to bring in income. Artists have spent 100 years deeply resenting – and regularly sacking or suing – managers and agents on the same percentage they now happily give to strangers for letting them sit on their web servers for a bit.
Treats for funders are embarrassing and a total arsehole to get done. Money is teased out of devoted fans with offers of rewards, exclusive content, private attention, all sorts. But these bring the wrong kind of closeness; too big a sense of a personal debt owed; often placing artists in uncomfortable situations. Trying to record music with 25 funders sitting in the control room as part of a treat day is a joke. A cause of this over-reach is also malevolent: the ever-increasing sense of urgency (becoming terror later) as the deadline looms, because ‘success’ is so important it erodes any objective sense of what is realistic or achievable. Which brings me to:
Something not even made yet is already a failure. On Kickstarter 56% of projects fail to make target and get zero. Unpack that stat and it’s pretty concerning: these creative people didn’t undertake Kickstarter lightly in the first place, they made a plan, shot a video, offered their fanbase all the bonuses in the world and still failed to hit target. That’s a whole lot of effort and commitment gone to define themselves as a big fat loser, for financial reasons rather than artistic judgement. I wonder what the damage done is, in real terms.
This is innately biased (of course) against inarticulate, disorganised and working class artists (whose wider communities and support bases tend to have fewer financial resources). I also reckon, although this is tenuous, that the system leans in favour of technically innovative, science-based, gimmicky, design or technical projects over pure art, because the former can be more easily explained, ahead of actually doing it.
New album releases go on forever. First the artist talks up the new album before even starting to make it. Then they endlessly document the process. Then it’s done and first they release it exclusively to funders. Then they do other posh formats separately, in order to send them out to other funders. Finally they release the album to everyone else. It’s been weeks since those first people got hold of it and someone immediately file-shared it. We’re bored now.
Finally, my biggest, most esoteric dissent speaks to broader issues about fundraising campaigns in general. These platforms rely on everyone turning a blind eye to a truth: that a very few devoted followers will fund almost everything. When artists draw resource from their audience, a very select core number of individual funders (relatively wealthy and truly devoted) will underwrite the whole ballgame. This is already true of the wider music industry: If we started analyzing the tiny contingency of people propping up our entire business, we’d be aghast. In crowd-funding, success or failure depends on whether the artist has those particular followers. I say this without specific data to back me up – however it is based on first hand experience not in the music world, nor business, but in the third sector (charity industry). In language and structure, arts crowd-funding campaigns far more closely resemble charity appeals than other kinds of business fundraising, right down to the ideas around ‘donating’ in return for special rewards. A charity industry ‘universal truth’ is that at least 80% of money comes from fewer than 20% of donors. Successful crowd-funding campaigns will always have exclusive, very high value rewards for much larger amounts, where ‘selling’ only a handful of them underwrites a massive proportion of the campaign. It’s an identical approach.
Honestly, so many artists I know who’ve crowd-funded would back me up here: because of this principle, the success or failure of a project is less down to the size of audience, or how hard the artist works the campaign across the breadth of their fan-base; it’s more down to whether they’re lucky enough to have a small core of very devoted and relatively wealthy fans, and/or some rewards of high value to offer those fans.
I believe, far too often, the artist becomes slave to the campaign, rather than the other way around. You would be astonished the number of artists out there who, even after publicly successful target-smashing campaigns, will later quietly express a range of regrets that they wouldn’t want their generous audience to know about. They look back and regret what they offered; regret the time wasted honoring those offers; regret how panicky they got about a ludicrous arbitrary definition of ‘success’; regret how the balance in their relationship with supporters shifted; regret not finding the funds elsewhere, so they could be more flexible about what it was they were making.
And these are the ones who won.
Now, I’m not really bothered; from all angles it’s just people making choices. I guess I just feel a bit sorry for them all, that they couldn’t try other ways first. And phew, I didn’t even mention Amanda Palmer.
ps. thanks to music fan and Words With Friends opponent Matt Rhodes for emailing me a question about recorded music pricing, which triggered this article – sorry I haven’t actually answered your questions at all, Matt, I’ll get to them.
I knew Kim Gavin’s Closing Ceremony would be the antithesis of the crazy-beautiful joy that Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce brought to the opening night: I knew it would be predictable and mainstream. But that was fine, we’d have a laugh, enjoy the music acts we like and I honestly thought it would still be funny after three hours. Witnessing the pop stars and lickspittles trying to equal Boyle’s heady brew. Art is subjective, after all.
I was mistaken: it was a numbing, disheartening disaster. The biggest floating turd we ever did whiff; reducing, demeaning and re-squishing Britain, at the very moment we’d felt shifted long-term for the better by these liberating Olympic Games. In one fattened pig of a gong-show, Gavin forced us back into clunky shackles that Boyle and Boyce briefly, tantalisingly freed us from, only a month ago. Far worse than just being bad, what unfolded was – I think – proper fucking dangerous. You know that phrase: the banality of evil. So.
There’d been rumblings that Danny Boyle didn’t put enough Churchill in. Our war leader, fast deposed in peacetime, wasn’t given enough of a strident voice for organisers’ tastes. Because obviously we need thoughts of conflict and top-down triumphalism, not co-operation and shared effort, to show us off to the world on the eve of a big sports pageant. Dur. Anyway, Kim Gavin kicked off by correcting that error, with admirable actor Tim Spall bellowing something from The Tempest, stretched over a noisy background canvas in awful parroting rasp, reprised in broader strokes from his performance in The King’s Speech. Not a fresh moment then; instead lifted from someone else’s casting and someone else’s process.
This flags up clearly what was about to happen for fucking hours: piles of stuff presented as unique, weighty or historical that was actually just re-staged ubiquity; hackney carriaged bits and bobs, flung up-and-out on stadium scale, nothing new added. Constantly disappointing, the show repeatedly heralded musical legends who weren’t there; Bowie, Bush, they didn’t appear, just backing tracks over a tannoy. Desperately a commentator tells us Kate Bush re-recorded her vocal part for the ceremony. Why even bother, though?
Another outing for Emeli Sandé. In the Opening Ceremony she performed too but it wasn’t so much about her, then, as what she was singing: The Meaning had little to do with her domestic fame or career path. This time it was the opposite: entirely about Sandé as a PR machined product – and she went on for ages. I have to believe both Adele and Leona turned down Gavin, for Emeli to have got this length of slot; I’ve forgotten anything about the song except the totally Adele-ish solo piano accompaniment. Foghorn Florence was too edgy to appear, or too smart.
Gavin couldn’t get Oasis to reform; instead relying on Liam’s Beady Eye to karaoke ancient song Wonderwall. And what the fuck has happened to Liam’s voice? Once perhaps the greatest sneering, louche roar this country has produced – a rich, northern counterpoint to Johnny Rotten – yet now I guess ravaged by cocaine, inactivity, far too much soft cheese, it’s a horrible whining dither. Like when The Fast Show one week swapped Jazz Club for Indie Club (ha, there’s a boring, outdated 90s reference for you) it was a disinterested parody of ‘alternative’.
I reckon George Michael’s live auto-tune was still on as he spoke between his two songs, so his voice glitched out as if he’d breathed helium.
And the most audaciously lazy bit of all: the entire audio track of the opening section then replayed as backing soundtrack to the athletes arriving and partying. Gavin couldn’t even be bothered to pick some different tunes to play out over the PA. Even the shittest amateur wedding DJ wouldn’t pull that stunt. So cheapskate, one almost expected the Spotify adverts to interrupt halfway through.
Such relentless, vacuous prioritising of burger van iconography over real-life performance (or talent) is summed up by Russell Brand’s song’n’dance number. I like Brand but he is a stand-up comedian, television presenter and sometimes a useful cultural commentator. None of these are here, instead we rely on his hyperdriven celebrity itself to carry something that is patently (and self-knowingly, since he played it for laughs) drivel. Now I’m getting carried away slagging it off but there is a more important thing needs highlighting about this show, with a direct comparison:
From the Opening Ceremony, take Atkinson-as-Bean’s comic bit around Sir Simon Rattle conducting Chariots Of Fire. Whether or not you enjoy Bean, this was an undercutting and re-humanising of an epic ‘classic’ piece of music that – without fundamentally lessening its power (it was subsequently used throughout the Olympics) – took it to a previously unseen, interesting, funny place. THAT is how to treat an icon. It was Gerard Hoffnung-esque, de-mythologised the orchestra and took itself lightly without deadening itself. Meanwhile, there was Akram Khan’s powerful Indian dance in near silence, linked to Emile Sande singing Abide With Me in tribute to fallen comrades. Here, crucially, the ethnicity, or ‘exoticism’ of the dance is not the point of the dance, rather it is presented as part of a bigger ‘us’, while the emotion in the dance is its strength and focus.
Compare those two sections to their near parallel in the Closing Ceremony; where Eric Idle flounces through Python smash Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life before being interrupted by, again, some Indian dancers, who befuddle and confuse him, throw dust on him, leave him distracted. On a quality level; again nothing new or rare. Performances of this song take place every night somewhere across the UK as part of Spamalot. On a political level, it no way captured any of the subversive silliness of the original from Life Of Brian. All reference to the film’s edgy content exorcised, of course.
But far worse, this routine was entirely about the otherness and exoticism of the Indian dance juxtaposed against Idle’s familiarity; this was the dancers’ sole point; to be alien where previously there was comfort. This is deeply malignant. Idle’s uncomfortable adversity was cultural diversity, because that is how this ruinous establishment needs us to feel about multi-culturalism, even as we pay lip service to difference. We already saw clearly – for example in far-right Tory arsewipe Aiden Burley’s “multi-cultural crap” tweet and a Daily Mail piece so bursting with racism even they re-edited it – how Boyle’s opening work was drastically radical by comparison: ethnicity and background properly enmeshed and un-highlighted.
Kim gave a similar bashing to gender, sensitivity perhaps heightened by how the past three weeks has been an extraordinary Olympic Games for women; with significant, real steps taken. The ‘fashion biz’ segment in the Closing Ceremony was an unfathomably regressive bit of choreographed objectification. It felt deliberate, as if designed to rein in any aspiration or hopes that briefly glimpsed light this past month. Huge photos of girls in posh frocks. Superstar models appear, celebrified, apeing their runway work on flatbeds. It wasn’t a fashion show in itself, or a true celebration of design (which would’ve told us something about design). It was more like the revenge of the owner of the commodified clothes-horse: as if womankind needed to be ritually re-objectified, after a short respite month of being valued in a better way. Ramming back home the wider truths of rape culture and wealth-based costumery idealism.
Appalling on both fronts: politically (not party-politically but in its representation of us as a people, a nation, to the world) and culturally, through its sheer, gobsmacking lack of material. Kim Gavin’s ceremony contained not a single new or unexpected idea. Not one! Just relentless looping of overly-seen bits from other big recent shows, produced by the same hegemony. The Who perform. Tick. Brian May does a big guitar solo. Tick. Ed Sheeran. Tick. There is no content and no meaning here whatsoever.
They were perfectly within their rights to produce a poor show – or rather, a show I personally didn’t enjoy: one person’s piece of crap is another person’s fun party. But what they weren’t within their rights to do was claw back the goodness. They stole our rapture and they put John Lennon’s dead face onto commodified conventionalism. Kim Gavin is the perfect example of an endemic disease in the modern British arts industry: a hugely powerful establishment creative director who is not actually a creative person, or if he was, long ago outsourced it for status and pies. His show was not cookery but mere assemblage – a Lego house built from bricks we all saw already, outdated values and the co-opting and commodifying of grace. And not even an interestingly shaped whole.
What Boyle’s Opening Ceremony had done was open up the doors; a box of delights; the best of what we are and what we can be in Great Britain, how we built this motherfucker. Showing us our truthful crazy-beautiful spirit and heralding in two weeks of sport in such a way that we felt something could be reclaimed and changed. We repaid him by being the best athletes, volunteers and audience in history.
What Gavin’s Closing Ceremony has done is to throw Britain back in the box and slam it shut; fiercely and unquestioningly placing current hegemonies back in charge; re-infantilising and re-exoticising all that Boyle had tried to unlock for us; a revenge for the otherness and the hierachy and the celebrity-for-its-own-sake, just as these bullshit Cowellian things had seemed to be proven unneeded. It was a boot on our face. I wonder how we’ll repay him.
I’m very proud to say I have an essay in the first New Public Thinkers book, available now. Edited by Dougald Hine and Keith Kahn-Harris, the book is called Despatches From The Invisible Revolution and includes some breathtaking writing from the likes of Pat Kane, Keri Facer, Noah Raford, Vinay Gupta, Smári McCarthy and many others.
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” – John Lydon
“They’re just a band.” – Scroobius Pip
If you’re remotely interested in live music (or just fucked off when you can’t get tickets for a show without paying double face value) then last night’s Dispatches programme was essential viewing (watch it on 4OD). It exposed the reality of ‘fan-to-fan’ ticket reselling websites like Viagogo and Seatwave; that they’re actually just online touting; regardless of any stated business model, they primarily cater to professional touts and promoters of major shows, such as SJM, LiveNation and Metropolis, who collude by allocating them batches of prime tickets, to make more money than face value.
Grim stuff, yet it was nothing one couldn’t expect or predict if one thinks about it for more than a few seconds.
However the investigation left out three points that I think could’ve been covered with equal vigour:
First, because Dispatches approached the issue solely from a consumer point of view, they failed to follow the money and investigate bands and their agents’ relationships with those promoters who’ve bumped up profits by re-selling. A fascinating (and potentially explosive) question is: do bands and their agents get a share of that extra profit, or not? Promoters and artists split profits of a sold out show, based (presumably) on number of seats times ticket price equals overall gross income. How is that calculated? Are the big artists being diddled, or are they complicit?
I ask because it will be terrific fun to watch, if it turns out promoters have ripped off some of the biggest names in music by reselling their tickets above the agreed sums, without passing on any of the profit. Unlike us humble punters, these bands have the resources and wherewithal to fight back, if they so choose. Or, if they’re complicit, they would make a much more effective target for consumer groups to attack, by publicly shaming the likes of Coldplay or Rihanna or Will Young, rather than the comparatively anonymous promoters.
Secondly, Dispatches should’ve investigated the perfectly legal and now almost universal, yet immensely damaging, exclusive closed pre-sales to owners of certain mobile phones or users of other services that have a relationship with the venue but no connection to the artist. By giving a specific group of people priority access to tickets, regardless of whether they’re a fan, surely the secondary market is being massively further nourished, while real fans are locked out in the cold. Arguably these pre-sales are actually worse for fans than plain touting, since they normalise the reselling process and turn otherwise normal ticket buyers into touts, for the bands they didn’t want to see but felt obliged to ‘take advantage of an offer’ on.
(I don’t mean pre-sales to artists’ own mailing lists or fan clubs, by the way, that would seem to me to be a perfectly logical and reasonable process.)
Finally, I would’ve loved to see Dispatches widen the investigation to look at the whole process of brand sponsorship of elements of the entertainment industry. If you’re an artist playing to 2,000+ people in the UK right now, it’s almost impossible to do that without becoming a tacit advertiser of O2. It’s not the Brixton Academy anymore, it’s the O2 Academy Brixton. Even smaller venues are increasingly branded. Yet did you know that if you purchase a t-shirt at a gig, the band aren’t getting all the money – the venues take as much as 25% of all income from merchandise, despite being supposedly ‘supported’ by a brand sponsor? Almost no bands are able to fight this – even the ‘guaranteed sellout’ bands who know they’ll fill a venue, make a venue and promoter a heap of money in drink sales as well as their share of ticket revenue, still are unable to work out individual deals to keep all the money from their merch sales. So one solution you increasingly find happening is artists and their management quietly supporting and supplying the ‘bootleg’ merch sellers outside the venue, to claw back some of that revenue…
and da-dah! …the system gets even more fucked and corrupted.
I have mixed feelings about this Dispatches. Although touting is fucking irritating and further snags up an already messy business, if punters weren’t so obsessed by certain hyped huge shows that they pay ridiculous amounts over the odds, it simply wouldn’t happen. Moaners seem to be calling for some kind of legislation to regulate an industry over and above other industries, simply on the basis of an annoyance factor. I hate it when otherwise-happy Capitalists do that, it’s one of the worst, nimby-est bits of liberalism. Last night on Twitter I called it a #sheeptax but nobody reacted (probably for the best!).
Anyway, there’s an economic case for saying it is proof that these shows are under-priced (ha! This isn’t something I actually believe, by the way) – a secondary market only exists while fans are willing to pay. So Madonna took a shit-load of heat recently (including from me) for saying her tickets should be £180, yet once you average the touted price with the official £60 face value Coldplay tickets, they actually came out at roughly the same figure. Many, many people paid £200+ to see Coldplay at the O2. Well, ultimately, do they really want my sympathy? Who’s the bigger fool?
So yes, it’s an appalling practice. But if people resolved tomorrow that they wouldn’t pay above face value, even if that means sometimes missing a show they wanted to see, pouf! the trade vanishes in a cloud of smoke.
I just had a killer idea for selling advance tickets to concerts online – a way of migrating ‘pay what you want’ across to the live music world, without having to do loads of gigs for £1.50. I think someone needs to build this app (or Eventbrite and other online sellers need to add it as an option). By the way, if this is already happening somewhere and I just missed it, I’ll happily stand corrected.
The ‘pay what you want’ model (popularised by Radiohead I guess) is now widely used by artists to sell downloads. It’s available as an option on Bandcamp for example; I tried it myself for 2010′s Christmas download and it worked beautifully. But to my knowledge nobody has set it up for gigging in a way that works: Eventbrite does have a ‘donation’ based ticketing option but it has two deal-breaking flaws: 1) they still charge a booking fee on the donation (!) and 2) if you reach capacity mainly from people who donated nothing, you can’t then prioritise those people who donated more. You get a room full of people who valued the experience at zero and turned away some folks who were willing to donate a chunk. So here’s a simple twist on the system that would make it beautiful:
Pay-what-you-like but the promoter can keep offering tickets after capacity has been reached. At close of sale (based either on a fixed point in time, or on a total amount of money donated), the highest offers (bids/donations) are the people who get the tickets and have their money taken.
The promoter can even set a cut-off point, so they want to earn a fixed amount and (once capacity has been reached) the system keeps prioritising higher offers (bids) until that amount is reached, then cuts off – which will still allow some lower bids access to the show. Meanwhile punters can keep checking back on a gig’s popularity and raise their bid / donation if they start worrying they won’t get it. It needs to be open to be fair, I guess.
*EDIT* and I guess it needs a reserve amount too, below which the gig doesn’t happen!? Hadn’t thought of that…
I bet this would be a relatively simple add-on for an advanced system like Eventbrite or The Big Cartel. (Not to even mention good old WeGotTickets, because they’ve got some catching up to do)
*EDIT* Luke Beesley (@LukeTotD) has found a catch: it makes life tricky for people who travel to gigs via public transport, since there’s an element of risk involved, yet you get much cheaper public transport bought in advance. And you’re more likely to want to donate *less* if you have to travel, because of the total cost involved. Yes, this is a problem.
I wonder if you could include in the model an option for a ‘secure it now’ price, for people who don’t like the risk. This would have the added bonus of encouraging gig prices upwards (from my point of view that’s a bonus since I fundamentally believe most non-’heritage genre’ or ‘tribute’ small live music events are currently underpriced), while taking the risk out for those willing to pay a little more. It’d also be fun and perhaps, with a forum-style comment space under the ticket thing, create more of a community out of gig goers?
Am I now over-thinking it all? Comments welcome below, as always…
*BIG EDIT* Rhodri Marsden made a strong critique of the idea on ideological grounds on Facebook, and he’s agreed I can add our conversation in below:
I thought “Wow! that’s a good idea!”. And then I thought, no, it’s not. The reason it works for music is that there isn’t a finite number of products. If people want to pay more, then they can. That’s fine. But excluding people from gigs because people with more disposable income pushed ahead of them in the queue just seems a bit crap.
Gigs shouldn’t be about exclusivity. Certainly not in our world. Part of the reason it’s nice is cos everyone has paid a tenner to be there. Except the freeloaders, but I don’t believe in freeloading either and always pay even if I’m on the guest list. (I’m rambling now. I also appear to have become more left-wing in the last 3 minutes than I thought I was.)
my starting position (which you may disagree with) is that most small gigs (discounting ‘heritage genre’, ‘tribute bands’ and ‘lineup of local hopefuls’) are currently underpriced. Secondly, surely this system is no more exclusive than setting a fixed price in the first place? I believe a key to the gig industry is the disconnect between what promoters and artists believe people will / can pay for live music and reality. The myth is: people won’t pay £10 for a evening of live music but they’ll pay £8.50 for the cinema. To counter your ‘exclusivity’ issue, you can still run the ‘auction’ but stick in a ‘buy it now’ price.
Oh right. Yes. For some reason in my head we were talking about a room full of people who’d paid £20 squeezing out those who could only afford a fiver. If it’s a roomful of people paying a tenner squeezing out those who are only paying a measly quid, somehow it becomes more palatable.
In many places in the country a glass of wine in a bar costs almost £5. I’m not feeling bad about people only prepared (able) to pay that, perhaps (sometimes) getting edged out. But fundamentally, folks would set their own levels.
But doesn’t supply & demand economics set gig pricing levels in any case? Popular gigs cost more money, less popular gigs don’t. I don’t think there’s going to be a rush of people (say) desperate to pay £15 to watch something at the Buffalo Bar.
This week the inaugural John Peel Lecture was broadcast on BBC 6 Music, with Pete Townshend speaking at the Radio Festival in Salford. Introduced by Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie, the series states an aim to channel “the values of boundless curiosity, exploration and celebration of music,” correctly ascribed to John Peel. But when Townshend was introduced, The Who were called “one of Britain’s most successful and iconic bands,” in other words, already that simple task of focusing on ‘music’ was taking a back seat; linguistically subjugated by two un-musical things: popularity and iconography.
Yeah, before Townshend even spoke a word, his half century of work got Florence And The Machined; ‘fiscalated’ to a horrific, Hallowe’en-y extent.
Anyway, almost nothing Townshend said in the lecture made sense to me, after his initial truism of “All creative musicians want is the resources and the facilities to make music.” He openly decided to represent the entire Internet music distribution world solely with iTunes, as if Apple was still the only provider of legal downloads; in other words wrenching his argument pointlessly forwards in time from 2003, when that was briefly true.
Making almost deranged broad-stroke negative assumptions about DIY processes – for example arguing that bloggers are so collectively mean they somehow cannot tell the truth to artists in the way that old major label A&Rs could (ignoring that these two jobs are utterly perpendicular) – Townshend demanded iTunes install an in-house A&R team, start marketing and hyping their prefered artists like major record companies do (did), and asked Apple to donate computers to the 500 ‘best’ artists per year.
Honestly, this is just gibberish. His argument boiled down to the re-emergence of subjective (and money-led) third party quality control, built back into the mix, as was the norm in the bad old systems. Worse, Townshend thinks that iTunes should be licensing their ‘best’ music to physical distributors to make CDs, or books, or whatever packages they like. He spoke as though that isn’t already happening, in the hands of independent artists, who use iTunes as it should be used – one non exclusive distribution tool for their digital work. He spoke as if taking on the physical nonsense would somehow be a useful service for artists, rather than – in fact – a(nother) rights-stealing restriction on what we can do better for ourselves.
Townshend’s vision for imposing these old (dying) processes on the new world is a desperately regressive step towards giving even more control to a company he’d criticised only moments before for being exploitative. Anyone with experience in both old and new music worlds should see clearly, what Townshend called ‘creative nurturance’ has always been one of the most singularly evil aspects of the ‘old’ music (and entertainment) industries. There almost never was duty of care. There almost never was artistic development. It was always fundamentally and aggressively commercial development; workload pressure edging toward the impossible; often (not just sometimes but often) bullying and at worst the deliberate creation of life-threatening co-dependencies to increase control over artists’ lives.
I’m not being conspiratorial, that’s what happened, across every genre, forever. Squint honestly through smoke and mirrors and rose-tinted myth; the entire history of popular music is brimful of despicable acts of control over and abuse of talent by the exact types Townshend wishes to resurrect, from Colonel Tom Parker onwards.
Townshend knows this too. He knows that the ‘nurturing’ he described in the lecture is a fiction.
Apart from that unpleasant stuff, basically everything else he suggested is already in place on the Internet, independently of iTunes. And funnily enough, service providers that get nearest his vision are the most exploitative – the sneaky gits out there charging for gig promotion, or tricking bands into paying to be on ‘career-launching’ compilations, organising rip-off pay to play ‘battle of the bands’ contests, or building whole networks just to flog artists their clunky, unnecessary electronic press kits. Meanwhile the good online tools for artists are plethora and you pick and choose. If Apple turned around tomorrow and offered exactly what Townshend asked for, it wouldn’t add a single USP beyond what’s competing online already, built by small, highly competitive companies fighting to build their own roster or corner a bit of the market.
I’m not over-romanticising: I made a similar but more nuanced point in my own talk (much, much less heard!) at Brighton Digital Festival last month; I know we don’t live in the DIY paradise some musicians imagine. The majors are replaced by less pro-active, often automated systems that still take a cut and still get rich off our music. From Bandcamp to PledgeMusic to Facebook, there is always a profit motive behind the user-friendly ‘sharing’ vibe. But the solution isn’t to run backwards into the arms of the kinds of malignant fools who used to own the show unhindered.
The solution is to pick the right ones, use them in the right way and keep your eyes peeled for developments.
John Peel wasn’t a record business sales rep, he played music on the radio. Although obviously he had to survive a changing diaspora and therefore play the game, John Peel was remarkably disinterested in the ‘business’. He broke so many great artists without caring whether they’d go on to be superstars: he just played the songs he liked.
This was the real pity about the first John Peel Lecture – as with far too many officiated conversations about the arts today – it was all business, no creativity. Despite disagreeing so strongly with him and also being disappointed by his under-prepared sub TedX delivery, I still think Townshend was a good choice to speak under the banner.
They should pick outstanding individuals, not aim for constancy of content – and Pete Townshend was an uncomfortable, unique visionary in his day. But it would’ve been fabulous if he’d chosen an aspect of his music-making, rather than a discussion about the processes of commerce, to talk to us about. Anything from tinnitus to songwriting to guitar effects pedals would’ve been better.
So in future, hopefully the music industry lecture series in John Peel’s name will be about music, rather than industry.
An irritable day, trying to put together a Pecha Kucha talk. It’s supposed to be on Underground Music, Post-Capitalism & Twitter but in my heart I just want to show people my photos of toilets. (it’s HERE by the way)
Anyway, THIS piece by Eleanor Margolis in the New Statesman grinds my gears so much I have to respond. I tried to write (via iPhone) in the NS comments section but it got eaten by a shit authentication process, so I’ll do it here:
First, it’s unfair to pick on Grace Petrie. Petrie is a young, developing, as-yet unsigned artist (still works a day-job) who specifically sings in that classic sincere Bragg-esque acoustic protest style. That’s her schtick. It stinks to hit her simply because it’s a style (or hers a voice) you don’t dig, especially in such a high profile leftist space as NS.
Secondly, I think you’re dead wrong to extend that disdain out to make a universal point. It’s meaningless – for example even on the same bill, on the same night (Robin Ince’s beautiful Book Club night, 1000+ people in the woods), you’ve not mentioned (missed or ignored) two other music acts with political content, with markedly different style to Grace (me, and Jim Bob from Carter USM). For my part, I was fucking hilarious, even my miserable eco-song had talking trees and time travel.
Thirdly, the piece overlooks what’s happened to the entire music industry, regardless of politics, by assuming that ‘success’ equates to the old stuff, the ‘status’ of mainstream pop stardom. It doesn’t work like that anymore – there are a thousand new, different, better ways to build careers in music-making. So of course progressive or radical artists across all genres (just like all artists) are liberated from the hegemony of the ‘radio hit’. There are huge successes all over the shop that debunk your argument.
Fourthly, you missed the boat: where were you six weeks ago when we had this debate? NME editor Krissi Murison wrote a piece in The Guardian saying roughly what you’re arguing. Back then I wrote a rebuttal in the Morning Star (which you can read by scrolling down), there was a ton of comments across social networks and even Mr Bragg chimed in, in NME and on his blog. It concerns me that you feel able to make universal points about the modern music community, without having even been aware of the previous debate.
And yet again you focus on artists themselves, when clearly an argument along these lines needs to be framed as a critique of the establishment gatekeepers, who decide which artists will get mainstream TV and radio exposure.
Fifthly/finally, you’re simply wrong. Your readers would’ve benefitted far more from being pointed to: The Agitator, Sam Duckworth (Get Cape Wear Cape Fly), Scroobius Pip (solo or with Dan Le Sac), Rumour Cubes, Emmy The Great, LowKey, me, folkies such as Spiers & Boden, Chris Wood, Eliza Carthy, Frank Turner (a different political hue but still making powerful points), a whole bunch of successful heavy rock acts, plus huge amounts of UK grime, electro, dnb and hip hop stuff. And the rest. Especially if you include the Americans, there’s container-loads of the stuff.
To my mind, you’ve missed all this music because you’re not listening out for it, you only spotted an artist when she appeared to conform to your “cling for its life to another era” stereotype and then berated her for doing so.
I just broke the back of my Edinburgh Fringe run; finished my 10th lunchtime performance out of 19, made it past the halfway stage. I’m having some inspiring shows, seeing some great stuff as well (I’ll write about that later), and performing Disobedience is very different to my normal set (and lifestyle), so that’s a fresh feeling.
It has rained almost constantly, pouring down hard for hours on the city. Edinburgh is full of sudden heights, deep cellars and cobbles that feel properly ancient, rather than historical in the ‘behind a rope pointed out by a tour guide’ sense. When I get back to the building in Morningside where I’m staying and walk up the stone stairwell to the apartment, the stone steps are so old, the middle of each one has been worn away by peoples’ footsteps. Even the schmaltzy burning torches around the castle, blurred by dimming light and more rain in the evening, make the castle itself feel old in a true way. Only one sunny day in two weeks, I think.
Then once every few days a jet fighter plane buzzes the city, passing overhead so low and loud it roars like a close crashing jumbo and I think of 9/11 every time. The first time I was waiting at a bus-stop and almost fell over. I have no idea why the Scots put up with it, don’t shoot the bugger out of the sky.
Morningside, just south of the centre, is possibly the best place in the world I’ve ever stayed for any length of time. Out the door, within 50 metres there are four different independent coffee shops or tearooms. Every single possible amenity, posh or simple, within a five minute walk, plus the buildings are gorgeous.
I’m still overwhelmed by how many thousands of shows are on: narrowed it down to 15 paid shows (keeping to budget) and a longer list of free things. Each day I tick a few off. But each day I discover more to add than I’ve ticked off, so my list is longer than on day one. Even running around town like a drenched idiot, I’m missing loads.
Ryan’s Cellar Bar is a plush little jazz room underneath a sports bar and restaurant. I have 40-50 seats in theatre style, a beautiful, slightly heavy-keyed baby grand piano that’s seen much jazz club use and a small backstage area they’ve roped off out of their restaurant. The venue staff are gorgeous; they’ve been totally helpful. After me (I’m on first), they’ve got varied fringe shows to deal with all day – so it’s carnage. After two performances I abandoned the PA system because it constantly got unplugged and cables got switched around all day. I’d show up, only to spend a panicked 20 minutes trying to get microphones to work before I was supposed to start. Then realised (obviously!) that I didn’t need to mic anything, rolling unplugged was much better.
I think I would’ve been lost without MJ Hibbett and Carsmile Steve, who shared a flyer with me and showed me just enough of the ropes to get me going, without patronising or making me feel like a dick. Last night, sitting with them in the Pleasance after Josie Long’s show was the first time I felt properly immersed in this weird comedy/performance scene that floats to the surface at Edinburgh like an enormous trade fair of entertaining humans. They know everyone, without being remotely showbiz.
I’m very proud of Disobedience; I reckon by show three it was doing what I wanted it to do. Early in the run I dropped a song (‘Pinkle Purr’) after only one or two performances, because it was too downbeat and gothy, too near the start of the set. Replaced it with something sweeter. There’s also still one poem I’d love to add, maybe for the final week, although it pushes the length a bit. In the middle I do two T-T songs, partly to tell a little story about them and partly because it shows how big an influence over me A.A. Milne has been, without me even realising til recently.
It is a very isolating experience though, being away from home for so long, yet not touring different cities and getting that regular fix of new surroundings. Not being in any of the cliques of comedians or theatre groups, I have found myself alone (which I’m fine with) but surrounded by people who are fiercely, loudly not alone. I think this is exacerbated by the tone of Disobedience, which ends in a very melancholy way, so each day at 2.15pm when I finish and say thank-you, I’m feeling rather sad. It goes, obviously, as soon as you have a drink with someone or go watch some comedy. But you know what I mean.
Anyway, I’ll do proper thank-yous at the end but must mention, as well as Mark and Steve, I’ve been totally amazed by the hospitality of Scott (from Frightened Rabbit), in whose room I am lodging while he’s on tour across the USA with Death Cab. He’s got possibly the finest book collection I’ve ever seen outside my Mum & Dad’s house. Singer Davey Byrne organised that, and (no surprise in terms of helping people out) Dave Hughes introduced me to Byrne and fixed me up when I was desperate, after my original accommodation fell through. My lovely friend Gwen in Dunfermline also immediately offered a room.
Enough, this is long. Next week I’ll write about shows, plus audience numbers stuff, plus all the skeptics and rationalists here and my insane weekend lurches down to play shows in southern England on my days off.
Loads of love. xx
If you want to see Disobedience in your town, talk to a venue or promoter of family-friendly events, or organise an event yourself: I’m not doing a full tour, just accepting a small run of shows in November. There are some hard and fast rules: there must be a playable piano (or professional standard piano keyboard), the venue must be seated, with all ages access. Although it’s not a ‘kids show’ per se – probably appeals most to adults who remember the poems –children are welcome and there are no swear-words (occasional dark ideas / mild gore).