Monday, 10 July 2017

A Summer Of Mixed Content




The recent Wish You Were Here live music study - has led to celebratory headlines once again as the growth in both domestic live music audiences and tourism related to live music demonstrate growth. But dig down in the data and the picture becomes more mixed. Apply that data to experience and the picture is increasingly murky.

What we can see with our own eyes is that the growth of live music as a customer driven experience has been exponential in the past decade. The amount of stadium tours, large scale live events and arena tours has multiplied as sales of recorded music have fallen, money has shifted from ownership to experiential, of that there is no doubt, but the nature of that experiential offering is changing and it feels like we are at the beginning of a shift that will either remake the large scale live event or freeze it as a spectacle of the age, doomed to decline as performers retire or disappear.
Whilst there is a 12% growth in the number of people watching live music, there is a 13% fall in the amount of money spent at venues under 1,500 capacity. This should be an alarm bell for an industry that depends on new talent. It is certainly not news, for years many in music have been bemoaning the lack of clear pathways for new artists to reach a financially viable status and I have written previously on the huge challenges that continue to face new artists and their management in sustaining a coherent promotional approach for their music in order to grow fanbase and achieve some form of security.

The preferred strategies to mitigate the removal of traditional financial support for new artists – advances replaced by sponsorship, recording costs replaced by home studios, recorded music sales replaced by gig receipts and merchandise take – are, at best, a patchy and unreliable option and at worst a kicking of the can down the road from an industry that has no answer to the significant dilemmas it will face in the coming decade.

Chief amongst those is that the live circuit is currently in the growth phase that can be compared to the boom recorded music saw with the advent of CD. The glut of reformed bands touring classic albums whether real or imagined (or debatable) and artists whose best days (or certainly most popular songs) are behind them is not a sustainable model for a healthy live sector. The positioning of decade old career bands at the top of festival headline slots is beginning to look threadbare; some would say we are way past that point. Even the camping plus three days model of many of the UK’s key festival names is under significant threat as audience age shifts and the idea of being under canvas with a cold water tap for washing fails to have the same appeal it did twenty years ago for those of us who began our festival lives in the late 80’s. 

That is the nature of the market, I would anticipate more of the familiar names of our festival circuit will disappear in the coming three or four years. Already T In The Park, once a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut, has transmuted into a city festival sans camping. More will follow. The desires of the audience are handily aligned with the needs of the promoters in such a model, the costs of securing camping sites (significant in terms both of land use and security costs) are moved out of the picture. That, in theory, leaves more money for talent. The challenge for promoters is what talent they spend that money on – short term gain or long term investment?

If that leaves a new path for promoters to rejuvenate a tired and increasingly unappealing multiple day event offering, there remains a bigger issue for both promoters and the wider industry. That drop off in venues under 1,500 capacity points to a decline in the audience for artists that make up the majority of festival bills. The cycle of promotion that saw artists run through club venues to those theatres and then to mid ranging second and third stage positions on an October through September cycle is fractured and, consequently their further progress through festival and touring shows to headline status is now blocked. Kudos here to Latitude who have, in recent years, enabled Foals to make the leap but there is scant evidence elsewhere of such long-term planning amongst event organisers. Possibly Chvrches, again with a Latitude hand up, may be the only other act to my mind that achieve that movement.

The malaise could go deeper. Many of my conversations on this subject with managers and agents come around to the one strategy that currently offers hope – Europe. If you can establish an artist at even a small-scale level across the continent, live receipts from festival touring can be the difference between a viable business and failure. As an aside on this, artists and managers who are label resistant should consider the wider benefits of a label that has presence throughout the continent, personal experience tells me that being in market even with low recorded music sales can offer benefits come summer time that more than make up for shortfall on album sales projections. Yet the current black hole of Brexit which leaves us incapable of making long term strategic decisions on Europe – will there be visa costs, will tax harmonies evaporate, can withholding tax be reclaimed etc etc? – feels like a kicking away of the last chair from under us. 

Given the multiple factors at play here, single solutions to the problem are not possible. It is all very well for John Whittingdale to offer positive comments to the report (whilst ignoring the negatives) but government strategies for artists in the form of tax breaks and a solution to the VAT black hole – many artists are below VAT income threshold meaning they lose 20% on a variety of spend for touring and recording – would be a start. Further aid from government in terms of cost reductions for small venues would also be very welcome. Within the industry, more investment is necessary for new artists. Management cannot continue to shoulder the burdens of start-up investment alone (as is often the case at present) whilst continuing to be offered deals that reflect a past age of advances with points structures and deductions that chip away at any returning income.  If not, we face a decade of decline, marked by a circuit of old stagers on big stages sucking the money out of live music until what should be a vibrant, forward facing industry becomes a heritage product, frozen in time.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Resistance may not be futile. Idles @ Rough Trade, Cabbage @The Scala









Two shows separated by two weeks. Two bands drawing on differing genres as their starting point yet finding common cause in their expression. Two moments that suggest reports of the demise of guitar music may be, as is often the case, somewhat premature.

Rough Trade East for Idles. A band that have been talked about in ever increasing circles since people got wind of their ‘Brutalism’ album. Built on US Hardcore and post rock dynamics yet shot through with a palpably English expression, their run through the album tracks in a record shop transcends the usual ‘meh-ness’ of an instore and becomes a rallying point, an out-poring of communal disgust at the system as represented by Grenfell, DUP bribes and public sector slash and burn. 

If that sounds less than entertaining know this. These volleys of lyrical subversion, these tales of horror on the breadline, of the sheer mental stress of trying to live in a society that divides to conquer are presented with a showmanship that echoes The Blockheads and flirts, in guitarist Mark Bowen, with the ghost of early 70's Roxy Music. Between the songs, sharp, clever bursts of intricate noise that go way above and beyond the reductive idea of ‘punk’, singer Joe Talbot contextualises and humanises these tales of anger and spite and, most of all, resistance, with off-hand remarks and explanations that are by turns revealing and touching.

A fortnight later, to the current zeitgeist accompaniment of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’; the modern equivalent of the CND pin badge in the 80s, Cabbage land at the Scala. The vein is similar, the base different. A more English post punk augmented by the likes of Dead Kennedy’s cartoon bile is in play yet that is too reductive. The Blockheads spring to mind once more, as does the angularity of The Fall (in both bands), a sardonic yet pinpoint series of revelations that skewer the sheer awfulness of the society we have created and currently ‘enjoy’. The whole could be dry and hectoring yet Cabbage and Idles are here to celebrate with their community, not lecture them. Stage divers are present at both, a phenomenon until recently reduced to sub genres of rock yet now breaking out as an expression of freedoms and the lack of band / audience barriers. 

Cabbage nail the DUP deal with the appearance of the ‘ghost of Ian Paisley’, beamed in from the 70’s in beige lounge suit to goad the crowd for the finale of ‘Uber Capitalist Death Trade’, a track that suggested guitars might again be wielded to political statement to create a (potentially) mass audience once more. The ghost of English theatre subversion all the way back to Shakespeare’s mechanicals hovers over the Scala stage.

There is joy in both performances. Joy in the sense that here are artists that are ready to communicate meaning in ways that are inclusive and accessible. That guitar bands can find new ways to take old formats and ideas and reinvent them to carry new and important messages. That shows can once again be a coming together of more than a group of people wanting to sing along to a clutch of hit singles before going back to their conveyor belt in the morning. That music can change minds and make a difference. The audience at both shows exit talking about their night but also the relevance of that to the wider world outside the venue doors.

It’s a long way from a chant to real change but here are two moments that suggest guitar bands may again play a part in the process to come.

Friday, 9 June 2017

How hope works









There is a moment when you realise that you are older. My moment was this morning watching the General Election results. In that moment I realised that my idealistic younger self had been turned and triangulated by the things that age brings; money worries, family worries, a sense that reaching for the stars is for kids and ‘life isn’t like that’. More than that, I was won over by the argument that only being centrist would win seats. That you could not offer a break with the norm without being wiped out.

Thankfully that was followed by a moment where I began to think that maybe that isn’t the case.
The Mea Culpa. I re-joined the Labour Party and voted for Corbyn as leader. I left prior to the second leadership election in despair at the shambles. At John McDonnell throwing Mao’s red book across the Commons, at Corbyn’s inability to communicate via the media, at that whole Vice documentary, at what I thought was a leadership that had taken a party hostage, at a hope crushed by left wing infighting, self-interest and smashed windows.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Over the course of the last six weeks it has dawned on me that whilst those things happened, somewhere along the line the protagonists got hold of the party, shook it and pointed it in one direction. The manifesto leak, a thing that would have previously been the start of a balls up of monumental proportions, became a starting point for what has transpired overnight. Momentum, that double edged sword of hope and less savoury actions, has delivered  a ground game that has energised and enthused a youth vote in a way no commentator believed was possible. The party leadership has turned the conventions of the Blair years on their heads. No longer the working classes put up with the policies to woo the middle class, the very reverse is true. Metropolitans like me desperate for an anti-Leave platform were ignored, the pitch was to respect the vote and that pitch secured gains in Wales, the Midlands and the North. We were put in the position of those folk throughout the Blair years, the calculation (correct as it seems) was we would go with it because an ordered, friendly exit versus the Tory offer was by far the better option. Look at the Lib-Dems for what a Pro EU platform might have delivered. Not only did that sweep London but it added places in the South we never anticipated. And everywhere, the youth vote, a vote of hope for a different future.

So back to my hope. No longer a Labour Party aping Tory spending cuts and squeezing through tiny changes terrified that the electorate wouldn’t stand for any suggestion of tax rises or spending increases. Fair play to Corbyn, McDonnell and all for not being ‘older’, for still believing in something bigger than doing the best with the same tools as their opponents, for standing for what they believe in and arguing for a new way. Kudos to them for paying out detailed plans and ot pulling their punches, for saying borrowing is not always bad, that Keynes is not dead and is, in fact, the way out of this awful zero hours world we have created. I may not be 18 anymore but I felt part of that youth surge this morning, I felt that hope and the belief in another way. I intend to hold on to it. More than that, I intend to get involved properly. For the many, not the few. That is a good place to be.