THE DEATH OF LIVE MUSIC AS WE KNOW IT; AND THE REST DOESN'T LOOK TOO ROSY
Roger Berzerk Fauske: Cartoons by Tom Johnston
As dramatic as it seems, there is a frightening and very real possibility that the era of live music is coming to a premature end. Yes you did read that correctly.
We have witnessed its decline over the last two decades and time is fast running out to put the brakes on the destructive corporate juggernaut that seems hell bent on destroying the very essence of music, especially the world of rock.
The difference between now and 25 years ago is like black and white and paints a bleak picture of the current situation.
Back in my youth, in the early 80s (1980s that is), finding a gig to go to was hardly rocket science, even when you weren't in a big town. And more to the point, there were a lot of like-minded individuals – it was what you did if you loved, even liked, music.
Fast forward to 2013 and things aren't quite as rosy. More venues closed than you can shake a stick at, more apathy than depression at a Radiohead gig and that is just the tip of the iceberg. So what exactly happened?
Article continues below...
As much as such abhorrences as pop idol, X-factor, the voice and all their demonic offshoots are detrimental to authentic musicians and the trade they ply, all the blame cannot be laid at their door. Hell, we had the likes of Rick Astley and Bros around and we didn't suffer because of it.
How it was
Wind back a little and if you are too young, ask your dad. Bands recorded an album (often once a year, except for Boston), the album was released and they toured. Simple. When the album came out, we went and bought it, listened to it countless times, waxed lyrical about it and came over all unnecessary when they announced tour dates. There was no internet, no mobiles (yes there was electricity and the wheel had been invented), but we all knew what was going on – Kerrang, Sounds, or whatever flavour you liked, the Friday Rock Show, various things on TV, and the old system of conversation.
The chances were also quite high that wherever you lived you were never too far away from a venue. In the days when Wembley, the NEC and other arenas were in their infancy, they were full nationwide tours, 20 plus dates not unusual. And if it was a huge band, they just did a bunch of nights at the likes of Hammersmith Odeon.
Below the A-circuit there were of course the likes of the Marquee, Fleece and Firkins all over the place, Bierkellers and countless other smaller venues.
Those of us of a certain age remember piling up the motorway to whatever gig it was, the band's latest release blaring out of the car. That is just how it was. And failing a major gig to go to, there were countless small venues with bands playing – we just went and if it was good we stayed and if not we went elsewhere.
Then of course there were the festivals – Reading and the Monsters of Rock mainly but also others dotted around the country. I won't even go there as far as festivals are concerned – suffice it to say what passes for festivals now is not much more than a girl guide's camping weekend.
A bit hard to have a gig without one of these – that would be busking. It is hardly news that venues have been closing at a disturbing rate, prime venues included, but why?
Without going into it too deeply, sociological and financial issues have played a part – think about even the good old pub, a UK tradition for many generations. Now the amount of those that exist without having been turned into a restaurant in disguise is very small (on another note, I want a big plate of steak and chips, not a plate scattered with morsels colourfully designed by an interior designer that wouldn't fill up an anorexic).
As much as it may seem I have wandered off on a culinary cul de sac, the connection should be obvious. How many bands did you used to see in pubs? Simple answer is a lot, they acted as the next tier down in the venue hierarchy. Pubs, working clubs, social clubs, etc are where bands started out on the long road.
Smoking, or rather the banning of it and legislation regarding licensing for public performance, were two huge factors in the decline of some venues. Most of us know about the 2003 Licensing Act, where basically the government put the blame for teenage trouble and violence firmly on music events.
There was also form 696 in London which forced pubs and venues to list everyone playing, their personal details, even ethnicity. That form was the brainchild of Scotland Yard! All of a sudden it got very complicated to even think of having regular music.
Then of course the behemoth that is health and safety has reared its often ugly head in recent years causing problems regarding supposed noise pollution and safety. Noise pollution has always been an issue but in recent years that issue has become very thorny – more venues having to install noise limiting devices, even cut out devices, etc. This can then have a knock-on effect with bands less willing to play at such venues.
I freely accept that everyone has the right not to suffer from noise pollution in their home, but if you want peace and quiet, don't buy a house opposite a music venue then complain about it!
The direct implication is of course the cost of the extra administration, security and all the other aspects involved in adhering to H & S legislation.
As with most legislation, the end result to a business is cost, whether direct or indirect and the margin of a small venue especially is very tight – tight is an understatement.
The passing of the Live Music bill last year, ending the need for licensing for venues smaller than 200 will hopefully help encourage more places to host music, but has too much damage already been done? The almost total lack of publicity surrounding that and the original 2003 bill in the music press points as well to an industry that has lost its way, at the very least.
If large parts of the music industry are not concerned about the precarious state of affairs, then what chance the music fan?
The irony is that in the past a lot of live shows and tours could almost be classed as loss leaders. The tour happened to promote an album, that was the purpose of touring at that time and that is where the financial rewards were for the record labels and in theory the musicians. Nowadays, live music cannot afford to work like that and yet the very people who would benefit from a more active live scene seem apathetic to put it mildly.
As much as bureaucracy and government has undoubtedly affected live music, a lot of the blame lies with the social climate and changes. Blame may not be the right word but I will come to that later – for now blame is as good a word as any.
It's a different world now to 20, even 10, years ago and the music business has probably gone through as much change as anything else. Technology and how we communicate have gone hand in hand to totally change the way things are done. Cast your minds back again to the 80s (and 90s to an extent) – I am quite sure people remember waiting outside a Holiday Inn to meet the band you were going to see or had just seen. Nowadays, you send them a message on Facebook.
Music has drastically altered how it does business, so is it possible some of the problem is that we still think of the correct modus operandi to be the template we grew up with? There is a lot of talk, and has been for years, about all the file sharing sites and how they affect the business. Sites such as YouTube facilitate listening to whole albums without ever buying the product, the same with recorded live shows.
Streaming, Spotify mainly, is taking over as the music consumer's weapon of choice.
These of course are legal streaming channels – there is, and always has been, a lot of talk about illegal downloads. But has this not always been the case, just in a different way? Before downloads, there was taping of vinyl and copying CDs, so it is not a new concept.
The music industry is proactive in trying to change things, for example getting Google and other search engines to not list, or at least not list near the top of search results, sites with illegal downloads.
File sharing sites (Napster was the most high profile due to the legal ramifications) continue to provide downloads of music, software and just about everything else that is downloadable.
But latest figures show that over 80% of 18 – 25 year olds (the demographic thought to be mainly responsible for illegal downloads) pay, or are happy to pay, subscriptions for streaming services such as Spotify. The fact that the artistes and songwriters are getting a pittance from the streaming services is not down to illegal downloads.
The days of the bulk of income coming from the sale of CDs are over. The marketing now has to concentrate on service as well, not just the product. That is why so many bands and musicians make themselves so accessible to the music loving public – they are selling themselves - not solely their product.
Not only that, music is wanted on so many more platforms than just CD and that has to be catered for by recording artistes and the industry. The old adage of giving them what they want has never been truer.
Businesses in many sectors now use the free business model, contradiction in terms though it may be – and music is no exception. In fact music has to be at the forefront of it due to the nature of the product. As much as it may pain some people, the way to look at things is something along the lines of "as much as I try to fight it, the songs are going to be available somewhere for free online so it is better to embrace it and have them download the songs from me and that way I can give them a reason to buy something else of mine".
This, together with the availability and connecting to fans is a perfectly good business model.
I have seen, more than a few times, a picture of someone drinking coffee with the tag line – Why do people pay £3.50 for a cup of coffee but they won't pay 99p for a song? If there was a shop next door dishing out free cups of coffee then they wouldn't. But if the original expensive shop added some value and gave you a free coffee with the purchase of some of their other products, then all of a sudden people would be drinking coffee there again like it was going out of fashion.
The music buying public these days is a clever thing. Years ago it was quite easy to fool them, produce a few good songs and fill the rest of the album with, well, fillers... but not now. And that should mean the cream rises to the top, in theory at least.
On the live front, things have changed a lot as well. Whether we like to admit it or not, going to a gig is a lot lower down the priority list for 18-30's than it was. There are several social activities that are preferential – mainly involving electronic gadgetry!
But apart from that, changes in social behaviour when it comes to people's entertainment habits has been happening gradually over the years. As I mentioned, the pub culture has all but disappeared and the good old pub crawl has been replaced by more of a desire to stay in one place and be entertained there. Then there were such atrocities as Karaoke, where rather than watching and listening to those that could, those that really shouldn't be allowed to got up and sang.
Away from music and entertainment, there was a social move towards the "new man" syndrome (something that no female I have ever met seemed to approve of wholeheartedly). That coincided with the new spirit of unbridled capitalism, constant health warnings about drinking, the move towards "family ideals" from government.
All this led to more restrained nights out for a lot of people, pubs moving towards catering for the "family unit" and , in some cases, purely white collar clientele, hence the rise of the gastro pub and coupled with the way the pub trade was run, most landlords had no choice but to go in that direction unless they were fortunate enough to have a free house.
Added to that economic hardship that came from the push towards a materialistic society and the good old pub really didn't stand a chance. It may only be pubs, but they were the life force of up and coming bands, a place for them to hone their skills and for people to see them. Take away the grass roots and you take away the life and soul of it.
After that happened, other entertainment venues suffered as culturally things were changing and the music industry itself, whilst always a business, began its transformation into the corporation.
Because of the access the public has to music and the bands nowadays, there is not the same feelings of need to see them live for most people. As the industry pushes the corporate side, all the attention is on the bigger festivals and arena concerts – the only thing that matters is profit and the marketing is aimed at that. The music takes a back seat, sponsors, advertisers, TV deals and franchising are the controlling factors at gigs and people buy into it so the gigs that people do go to tend to be the bigger venues and festivals. There are no longer many big nationwide tours, but multiple dates at one or two arenas.
The smaller venues (by smaller I mean even ones with 1000+ capacities) are struggling to survive as very few named bands are playing there. A lot of them now are having to turn themselves into clubs after 11pm – it is literally the only way they can survive financially.
The knock on effect of that is the costs to hire venues increases as overheads increase and fewer and fewer people are willing to take the risk of putting an event on. Very small venues can in some cases only survive if the owner is more interested in the music than in financial reward and unfortunately they are few and far between.
But the main problem is so many people now are happy with listening, watching music videos and live performances. They may well have been 30 years ago if such technology existed, we will never know. The "I want it now" generation, as some describe it, likes to choose what it listens to – not whole albums any more but only certain tracks from it and the same goes for live, or what is perceived as such. They don't want to go to a gig and sit through 90 minutes when they see the ten minutes they want to on YouTube.
Speaker manufacturers are often using that concept – marketing their products with the promise that it will make you think you are actually there.
Additionally the arenas provide such a lack of atmosphere compared to smaller venues that there is a valid argument for thinking people are not missing out on as much as was once the case.
It is true a lot less people go to gigs now, but think of this as well – a lot of those that don't and prefer other forms of entertainment would have gone to gigs in days gone by as there was not a lot of choice of other entertainment then.
And what of the media? Where to start! The irony is that in a world fuelled by online interaction and communication, the spectrum of choice in regard to the popular media is narrower than ever. Whilst it is true that anyone can find any sort of music from Mongolian throat singing to the blackest of metal online, the mainstream media specialises in a bombardment of the same corporate identities on a never ending rotation.
One of the primary weapons of dictatorships is only letting people hear what you want them to hear and the media is following the same principles. Their argument is always that people can listen to what they want, but you can only know what you want if you are informed about the options available.
As much as it makes me nauseous, when you talk of media's involvement and attempted control of aural gratification, the rise in reality entertainment, specifically the x-factor, Pop Idol type programming is high on the agenda.
Now of course talent shows are hardly a new concept and manufactured bands are not new either. But the digital age has seen a massive rise in not only talent shows, but reality TV of all shapes and sizes and whilst that isn't relevant as such to music, what is relevant is the move to that genre of programming.
Andy Warhol famously said "everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes" and that is what reality TV is about, plus the inquisitive nature of the human race wanting to see behind closed doors and the revelling in other people's misfortunes.
And from the side of those appearing on these shows, the fifteen minutes of fame can turn into a lot more and that gives rise to the concept of being famous without having actually achieved anything. With the huge advances in communications, where the public at large gets involved is in the voting processes and that is where the programming has an impact, people feel less like couch potatoes and more like part of the production who have a say on what happens next.
The public loves a freak show. And it is no different for the music (I use that term very loosely) genre reality shows. Even better for the music industry is there is absolutely no risk involved as the music buying public is telling them what they will buy before it is even released.
This type of programming is of course marketed very well and aimed at specific demographics, 14-24, even though, and perhaps surprisingly, it is the 45+ demographic that actually buys more music than anyone else. But the 14-24 group is where new music is aimed at and they are also the ones who will vote in such shows.
As the industry knows, whilst it may be the 45+ that buys the most, their taste is less likely to be affected and as well as that, they have children and grandchildren who will of course want what they are told to want by the industry (did I say that, oh well...).
The problem with these shows is not so much what they are doing, but the fact that the line between music and entertainment is getting less and less visible. It is entertainment, hence the mix of car crash performances and the better ones but musically, but it is nothing more than directed karaoke - there is neither songwriting nor the playing of instruments involved. Entertainment is masquerading in the guise of music like a crazed bodysnatcher.
It takes a long time to even become competent playing an instrument and year upon year of practice to get good at it, a long time to develop into a top notch songwriter – yet we have a whole generation of people who think that all that can be bypassed to achieve fame and fortune.
And those three words are the problem - Fame and Fortune. Musicians play music as an expression, they love the music, its language, its emotion and if fame and fortune arrive then all the better, but if it doesn't as is normally the case, then do they stop? Of course not! How often do you hear a contestant on one of these shows say "It's all I ever wanted"? Yet they are 24 years old and have never considered joining or starting a band. If they want the fame and fortune that is fine, but don't try to fool anyone that it is anything to do with the music.
Rather than getting better, things will get worse. Think about it, 18 year olds now have been brought up with this programming so to them it is as normal as going out to gigs once was.
Another problem is the huge marketing platform that exists with such programming and because of this, musicians and bands who have no connection with the shows are falling over themselves to appear when they have new material to promote. For the program makers, as well as it being a good earner, there is almost a subconscious association made by the public between the band performing on the show and the show itself, which all adds to their public perception of it being the only source of music that matters.
Because successful prgramming relies on change and things not staying the same for too long, the short lived band is perfect for them – finish with them and move on to the next one. The audience knows that even if they do not like the current flavour of the month, it won't be long before a new one comes along. In any case, where the package being marketed is devoid of content it makes little or no difference what name is given to the empty package.
Elsewhere, because of the perceived huge influence and fiscal power wielded by such entities as X-Factor, other media sources are quick to side with them for fear of being left out in the cold and run over by the juggernaut of mediocrity. There are fewer areas of programming aimed at the variety of genre specific music if that genre appears to be one the powers that be don't endorse.
And the result is a whole generation growing up without exposure to different types of music. It is all very well saying people have made their choice, but how is it even conceivable to make a choice without being presented with the options?
Going back in time again, when I was youthful and depraved (rather than just middle aged and depraved) there was rock in all its forms, punk, electronic, new romantic, dance, glam, new wave, R&B, hip-hop, country and pop to name a few. There was huge variety and at the time we didn't realise how lucky we were to have the weapons of choice at our disposal.
It can be argued there are countless internet radio stations and, with the advent of digital radio, more access than before to music. But it is still in the realms of mainstream media where we discover new and different music and with that being run as a closed shop, the irony is the choice is less than ever before. The protagonists know that and will fight tooth and nail to keep the masses ill informed as long as it serves their purpose.
Take the mainstream media and its stations that advertise themselves as playing Rock music – that part is true but the content is what you would expect from a compilation album featuring nothing but the most well known songs. Sure, they are good songs but songs we have all heard more times than we have had hot dinners. Even if they insist on nothing but music by the most well known bands, at least play some that aren't heard often.
The whole point is though to let people hear a variety of different bands and songs, some of which they have probably never heard of and people can choose which they like and who they want to hear more of. So why don't they? One reason is that playing the standard regurgitated songs makes for much less work. Secondly, the total lack of musical knowledge and totally blinkered view displayed by DJs and those who, by the very nature of their public role, you would expect to have at least a grasp of even some music that isn't entirely mainstream and bands who are not household names.
Thirdly, there is the "control freak" persona that is a frighteningly major part of the makeup of much of the media and it would never do to give the people a choice. Not only that, the incumbents are hanging on to power by their fingernails. Without mentioning any names, many of these people are those whose opinions my generation of rockers grew up respecting, and unfortunately now many of them have become irrelevant but they like the standing they have, or more to the point, think they have – in short it is an ego trip of epic proportions.
Music has become too easy
It may sound positively puritanical and bringing out the musical snob in me that I can even suggest that so let me just qualify the statement. Music itself is not too easy, music is something that should be experienced by all, experimented with and played by everyone, used to communicate as the language it is.
That is just what it is, a language, and the most powerful of languages, reaching across cultural and geographical barriers. Whilst we all have a command of the idiomatic language our location and upbringing bestows upon us, we are not all public orators – why should music be any different?
It has, in a way, become too easy to record and publicise music and culturally the advent of all the aforementioned reality entertainment programming has provided justification. People wouldn't stand on a street corner or a town hall sharing their wisdom with the masses if they had neither the linguistic ability to get their message across nor something meaningful to say and yet they do so time and again with music.
Even releasing an album was an achievement in itself in the pre digital age – it took a lot of studio time and money and normally meant that a label or management company had great faith in the band and for that reason it was not something everyone could do.
The avenues available for generating interest in a band were a lot more limited in the days when Google was just a badly spelt word. This generally (though definitely not always!) led to a better overall musical standard as word of mouth played a very big role in a band becoming a fixture in the public consciousness. From the bands' point of view, there was a massive amount of commitment needed to even get to the stage of releasing a vinyl product and countless weeks living in vans between gigs. Yes we all had access to music as we do now but as it was so difficult to get a product out, it was more often than not a case of the cream risig to the top.
There was also a proliferation of differing sounds that sprung up regularly. The music was less media driven and more down to music as well as other cultural influences as is always the case. Of course the media picked up on the genres but a genre was very rarely built because of the media, a far cry from the situation today.
And nowadays? In a nutshell, getting music out there can literally be dependant on someone's IT knowledge as much as their musical ability. Of course computer generated music isn't a new thing and as an entity is a valid musical genre but when the technology becomes more important than technical music ability in forms of musical expression that traditionally rely upon musical talent, then a big part of the music is being lost.
Technology is something that exists in the modern world and its main advantage is making tasks easier to perform through software for example than if we didn't have access to the technology. But that is also to the detriment of music – you can use all the software you want but it doesn't give you musical ability or the technique that comes from hour upon hour of practice and experimentation.
It is a short cut to producing a song, but one that relies extensively on the previous output of others, via samples, effects, etc. They may be put together in a different form to the original sounds but in essence it is someone else's creativity, making the new song almost devoid of expression. We would all love to be able to play a guitar like Eddie Van Halen and a bass like Geddy Lee, but using a collection of samples and creating a song from them isn't a solution.
And yes I know not everyone does it that way. But even in a lot of the cases where the instruments are being played and there is true musical expression, the development process of the band and individual musicians has not reached its fruition and the technical standard can leave a lot to be desired. Original and innovative material then has nowhere to go other than into the background.
And even worse, once the musical product is finished, there are countless easy, quick and free ways of flooding the public with the songs.
There is more than a little paradox about the whole situation. Whilst only the most ardent musical fascist could argue that music should be the preserve of the few, the very fact that it is there for everyone, coupled with the digital age, has resulted in an abundance of what can be called at best mediocre music (I am being polite). Because of the ease with which it is now possible to record and release music there has been almost a standardisation, a template, which is as opposed to the true purpose of music that it is possible to get.
And the effect on the listener is that expectations are lowered, acceptance of the templated sound as the norm is the natural progression.
Safety is to be encouraged when absailing down a cliff face but when it comes to the arts, a blinkered approach without any risk is not benefcial. Taking risks and experimenting is how new ideas develop, new music genres begin and music is kept alive and fresh. There was always "safe" music where a successful formula was followed until it become too stale to attract a market any longer but alongside that, new music and original innovative sounds and ideas were free to flourish.
That freedom was facilitated by people and organisations who would take a risk with a new sound or concept – sometimes it worked and the sound became popular, sometimes it was shorter lived than English optimism at the World Cup. But even on those occasions, it could morph into another sound that did garner more popularity.
Rock music particularly, especially since the late 1980s, has suffered greatly from this lack of adventure. When grunge took over, the rock industry was only interested in pushing that type of music even going as far as to try to "grunge up" existing and new bands so they would fit in with the perceived new direction.
When grunge died its death thanks to a shotgun, instead of filling the void with the new and adventurous together with the established bands who retained a large fan base, there became a new musical order whereby the type of sound was decided by the business people not the musicians and if they wanted to gain commercial success they had to fit in with those ideals.
Of course there were exceptions to the rule but the mass market was dictated by the men in suits and their cohorts in the media – the musicians and bands became a tool for the greedmongers to achieve fame and wealth and it has stayed like that ever since.
There are other avenues open to the musician rather than those traditionally associated with the industry and that is where the advancements in technology have been beneficial. As well as the obvious enhanced recording capabilities for relatively low outlay, technology has also resulted in the opening of huge amounts of information channels so people are no longer at the mercy of the business in relation to the legal aspects of music and distribution.
As I mentioned, technology is a double edged sword.
In much the same way that the paradox exists with the seemingly ever increasing abundance of mediocre music, it is also prevalent here. The more access people have to music, the more they lack invention and follow blindly the perceived norm, a norm created by those who seek to control and profit from the music.
As risk is reduced, venues and promoters book only the "safe" bands and as a consequence, monotony takes over. Rather than an exciting journey, the live experience is getting reduced to a 20mph crawl in the slow lane so the audience, the ones who pay to go, desert the venues in large numbers. It also works inversely – as venues book more and more of these bands, others find themselves going in that direction as well as they see it as the only way to get more gigs.
Musicians; Demand and supply
The oldest and most relevant economic principle, demand and supply, is as relevant in music as in everything else. In a nutshell, if there is a sparse supply of a sought after commodity its stock rises and when the market is flooded with it so the supply outnumbers the demand, its value falls.
As far as live music is concerned the demand is the venues and the supply is naturally enough the bands. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell you that supply outweighs demand, which has a knock on effect in music more than in other sectors. The problem with music is when the supply is so great, there are always some who will provide their service for very low cost or even no cost.
A venue is a business and like any other business its aim is maximising profits and minimising risks. Obtaining a service with no outlay is a very good way to maximise profits – this especially is the case with the pub type venue. There is a guaranteed clientele whoever the band is and whilst paying a band even a relatively small amount of £200 should guarantee a few extra customers, the profit needs to increase by at least that amount to make it worthwhile, so an element of risk is introduced. To attract more customers there is additional outlay in advertising, again increasing the risk.
That is the reason venues come up with all sorts of inglorious ways to pay bands on percentages of door and bar – no risk is involved. That is an acceptable practice but where it turns all sinister is the different arrangements venues make to pay bands after the first x number of punters that come to see each band, etc – it is normally worked out very carefully so that rarely, if ever, will a band be paid at all. The problem is there are always bands willing to perform with such arrangements in place – if there weren't, then venues would have to rethink.
There is a market value for everything; as wrong as it may seem, Premier League footballers get paid huge wages because that is what that particular market can stand, netball players get a lot less for the same reason. Unfortunately in the case of live music, there are too many willing to sell their services for very little compensation and that brings down the perceived market value.
Whilst the majority of bands and musicians performing for free are doing so because, to put it bluntly, it is the only way they can get bookings, the impact on those who have a good value is that the entertainment industry becomes climatised to this concept and it almost gets treated as the industry standard.
A good example is a friend of mine from Manchester, Tony Dowler, who happens to be a quite astonishing guitarist, played a gig in Bristol. The venue had no interest in even listening to their music before booking them and when they played there, one of the audience said to the band: "We are shocked, we normally have shit here, we're not used to good music." And that is a true story.
The other major drawback is that the public at large is generally not overladen with musical ethics or musical awareness due in no small part to the media and its lack of diversity.
People like to hear songs they know, songs they grew up with, bands they grew up with whilst downing pints in their local watering hole. It is fairly unlikely that Aerosmith will pop in and play an impromptu set but a band playing nothing but Aerosmith songs may well do.
Attack of the clones
Tribute bands – we all have our opinions on them – but the fact is they have been gaining in popularity over recent years and the better ones can command a good fee. The market value mentioned above goes straight out the window with tribute bands. It is not much of a risk for promoters or venues to put them on – they know people will come to see them. For the punter it is a no risk night as well – they know exactly what they are getting, as far as the songs are concerned (whether they sound anything like they should is another thing entirely).
They are a far cheaper option than the band they are copying so economics plays a major role in their rise as well. A big part of the audience for tributes is the so called Generation X – they grew up with the music, they don't see the real band any more so the tribute is the next best thing and financially that demographic tends to have disposable income.
It is all a bit tricky when you look at it. Take the named bands out of the equation (after all that is only a very small percentage of bands) and what you have is very little at best income from the traditional source, the good old CD. Income from downloads is also declining as streaming gains in popularity. There are sales that will always exist from the most ardent fan who will want everything the band has ever done, merchandising, etc, but the traditional market has collapsed almost totally.
In theory because people have more access to music for very little outlay, the bands who create demand should at least generate an income stream from royalties – but given the way the PMRC calculates radio play royalties for example is anything but beneficial to the smaller bands, so even that is in many cases almost negligible – it may pay for a few strings and the odd drumstick but certainly not a tour.
More creative product selection and marketing is about the only way of trying to get a sustainable level of income from recordings – things got that bad that even labels had to diversify in sometimes totally unrelated areas to keep themselves in business.
So if the recording side of things is this bad, then the only other route is touring. Well not exactly. There are other avenues that can be explored; corporate gigs, online events, computer game music, soundtracks, etc and to cover costs of recording, fan funding of several different flavours is growing in popularity – after all, the basis behind that is no different to patronage that has been around for hundreds of years.
Most bands have a business model that primarily relies on studio and live and many simply do not have time to delve into the other areas (they work, have families and importantly have to devote time to drinking). Whilst there may be little income in the studio side, it has to be done as a way to be able to book gigs and generate interest. Everything has totally shifted from the old paradigm where tours existed to sell albums... arse about face is a good description. If live music is decreasing at an alarming rate, which unfortunately it is, that doesn't sound too promising.
If it was simply a case of different marketing being needed, different venues or price adjustments then it is easily remedied, but when swimming against the tide of social change things are a lot more difficult.
Similar to the way the recorded product needs to be more creative, the same can be said to be true in the case of live music. But there comes a point when the question arises of whether people are coming to see the music or are mainly interested in the extra value attached to the gig to sell tickets. While it is good that at least they are coming out and the musician gets to perform, there is a danger of the music becoming incidental.
Sad though it is to say, the fact that music has been dumbed down resulted in a mass exodus from the live arena by audiences – when other forms of entertainment arrived and became popular, music did very little to compete leaving the genuine music contributors out in the cold. Those bands that had already built a strong fanbase survived, but it became increasingly difficult for new original music to break through.
Ever wondered why there is a plethora of Rock bands especially who have been together for 30 plus years and are still pulling in huge crowds and making standout studio albums? Because they came from an era where the song was the important product and to succeed you needed to be a good songwriter.
This is far removed from the media induced modern throw away artist where, as has been seen, the businessmen rule and the musician is just a commodity.
We, and by we I mean those who have music's best interests at heart not our wallets, are playing with loaded dice, heavily loaded against music. If we change the game we will just be playing with a stacked deck and the result will be the same. There are direct comparisons with the political climate in some countries – replace what you have with someone from the same mould and as much as they promise change, in the end it is no different. To put it in an organic way, it is like a bad onion – take away one layer and there is another bad one underneath to take its place.
Revolution in all its forms is sometimes the only viable catalyst to long lasting change. I am not suggesting that we should go out and assassinate those at the top who ultimately have to take a lot of responsibility for the current state of affairs, as much as it would be positively enriching and self healing to do so. And I can't deny that Simon Cowell's head on a spike, along with those of his cohorts, would be the embodiment of karma, but it really wouldn't solve anything and the last thing the world needs is martyrs like that.
Revolution in this case needs to be in the form of music, music that can grab the attention of the country's youth in much the same way that punk did in the 1970s, music that will cause eruptions within the establishment. Personally I was never musically a fan of punk but the effect it had was so huge, it impacted everybody across many genres. As much a part of it as anything was the attitude, something brought about then by social factors as well as music and it is that attitude that music needs more than anything else at the moment. Attitude spreads much further than simple music taste and it has mass appeal in youth culture – we all at one time or another had the rebel in us, some still do and with some it never goes!
The rebellious youth has morphed into the apathetic corporate servant in recent years so a vehicle is needed to get people back out to gigs, a reason for them to put that ahead of all the other forms of entertainment available to them and until that happens, I for one don't foresee things returning to the correct order - the spirit needs to be reawakened. Let us all just hope it is only sleeping and not in a coma.
Once we get back to a semblance of order, the trick is to keep that order intact and I know this is a sensitive subject but the other side of the equation that is just as important is to put an end to the musical mediocrity that is an insult to genuinely talented musicians. For this to happen, it almost needs a civil war within the music community.
The public need to be able to see more skilled musicians in venues where they frequent and the only way this can happen is to put a halt to the purveyors of all that is second rate and technical and artistic music will then be seen as the norm rather than exceptional, they will become aware of a melting pot of different music and interested in music... from tiny acorns as they say.
As harsh as it may sound, these purveryors of mediocrity need to be stopped from playing in many venues so the venues can return to the realms of music. As we know, the vast majority of those who will play consistently for free make up this category so that is at the heart of the matter. Venues and promoters are far from blameless, but the fault is not entirely theirs – for music to become a valued commodity again musicians have to stand up against other musicians, people need to know which venues pay bands and consequently which venues will have the better and more entertaining music.
It is alarming that we are in a situation where this has to be done but for music to get back to the people, there has to be proactivity to change people's mindsets, so they know there are other choices.
We need musical heroes, the kind of person that you hear when you are 10 years old and it makes you want to do that, to play that instrument, to talk to people with music and that is all a long way removed from just wanting to be famous.
If we are not prepared to fight for it, then change will never happen and so much will be lost.