Towards a sustainable music

Over the Christmas period I made one of the hardest decisions I've had to face and I chose to leave both my treasured bands, Wod and Telling the Bees. The tensions and contradictions between raising a family in Devon and playing in bands in Oxford forced me to a decision, and when put in those stark terms – family or band – there was only one way I could go. Parents everywhere will share my pain.

Romantic to the core, I've never played music for money, but I can't deny that the need to earn money was a factor in my decision. At best I'd say that over the last three years, if I tote up all the unpaid hours of rehearsal, travel, emailing, phone calls, website maintenance and admin, I've probably broken even. A well-received third album and appearing on the front cover of fRoots did not translate into ready cash.

Parenthood makes you reevaluate all manner of things you previously took for granted. It becomes hard to justify what amounts to an expensive and time-consuming hobby.

But, why does it have to be like this? Since making the decision, I've been thinking a lot about the question of music and sustainability, and whether they are remotely compatible. I'm not sure I have any concrete answers yet, which is why I'm posting here.

Music is unsustainable in a number of ways. There is the obvious fact that the rightly-named music industry manufactures stuff: vinyl, cassettes, CDs, synths, DI boxes, miles of cables, PA systems, mixing desks, recording gear, iPods, headphones, t-shirts etc etc. All of it is ultimately destined for landfill (remember minidisc?). Every Youtube play releases a puff of carbon dioxide into our overheated atmosphere. However much our cherished musical heroes espouse radicalism, Western popular music-making is inescapably a product of late capitalism, with all that implies.

Then it is unsustainable in terms of the human cost. Those artists that do now achieve national or even international success tend to be young and hungry for fame. They'll do anything the record companies say because they're all holding out for the golden ticket, the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. Fame and fortune. Little do they know that they are just expendable commodities. Most don't last beyond a second album, and such are the expenses involved in propelling them to their brief moment of stardom, that when they're inevitably dropped by their labels, they're left with nothing but a coke habit and a badly distorted sense of self-importance. It's established fact that musicians die young, and rates of mental illness amongst musicians are disproportionately high.

And finally, it's unsustainable in terms of the fact that it is now virtually impossible for musicians to earn a living from playing music. Just the other day I heard of a successful metal band who have set up a fish farm to fund their musical activities. I had a salutary conversation with a friend of mine who plays in a very successful band, signed to a major label. Five albums in and she's received about £200 from CD sales. That's not going to buy her a house anytime soon, so, like her bandmates, she has a job. Meanwhile, the promoters get paid, the manager gets paid, the sound guy gets paid, the venue gets paid, but last on the list come the musicians, without whom none of this would be possible.

I worry about all three of these points of sustainability, but obviously my most pressing concern is with the third, of how to make a living from music. It feeds into the wider question of how and whether we value art.

Now, I'm not one of those people who think that just because I can play an instrument to a reasonable level of competency, the world owes me a living. Far from it, which is why I've always had jobs and done that juggling act of working just enough to put bread on the table, but not so much as there's no time to dream. But neither do I agree with the Right, that Art's worth can be measured by how much money it earns. Many would agree that the world would be a poorer place without psychedelic folk but its net contribution to GDP is laughable.

As Brian Eno pointed out in his recent John Peel lecture, in rock's heyday the record companies controlled the production of music and so limited its supply. Now, the digital revolution means that anyone can record and release music online. There has never been more music nor less incentive to buy. I no longer have to take the risk of purchasing an album to see if I like it – I can check it out on Youtube or Soundcloud first. Amazon, iTunes, Spotify and Youtube cream off most of the profit from streaming and sales, delivering pence and sometimes fractions of pence to the content providers. It's an irony that the very technology that allowed me to record and release three albums has also contributed to the erosion of music as a living.

I believe strongly that music is a necessity not a luxury. The demise of so many musical greats this year has demonstrated to me at least, that pop music can create not just idols, but shaman-like figures who help us negotiate our way through life and death. Think of the effect that Bowie's Blackstar unleashed. But if it's a necessity, how do we pay for it?

Music doesn't just appear ex nihilo but demands hours of practice, jamming, noodling and frankly, staring into the middle distance doing not very much at all. It used to be the case that you could just sign-on, as Eno did. No longer. If you're not generating income, even though that be in a dead-end minimum wage, zero-hours contract McJob, then you are a scrounger and a sponger.

So what's the answer? The luddite in me would like to see a return to a bardic model, where musicians travel locally, from one warm welcome to the next, performing in people's homes, or village halls, or in a tent they bring with them. It was the model that obtained in medieval Wales (you can't say I'm never topical), and that's been revived very successfully by theatre company Horse and Bamboo, and Giffords Circus. Beyond the obvious objections – we can't all hit the road, even if we wanted to; we mostly live in cities, not villages – it's hard to see it working for music, simply because there is so much music. People make the effort to go and see the circus precisely because it only comes once a year.

Musicians could increase the value of what they do by stopping recording altogether, thus imposing self-imposed limits on the supply of their music. Live music would be at a premium. But this would only work if everyone did it, and I can't see that happening. In any case, it's so easy for anyone to bootleg recordings on their phones that it's a non-starter.

Another possibility is that artists simply seek patronage from their fans, that they place donation buttons on their website and hope that sufficiently large number of people feel moved to contribute. Apart from the fact that asking for money is agonisingly unEnglish, it begs the question of how unknown artists can ever get a profile big enough to receive sufficient patronage. Nevertheless, this might be the only answer.

In writing this article I've just come across Fair Trade Music, which is a Portland-based pressure group that seeks to endorse venues that treat their musicians properly and pay them fairly. This is what the Musician's Union used to do (sadly, I never earned enough to justify the membership), but it would be great if this took off here in the UK too.

But perhaps we need a sea change in culture, where art and artists come to be valued once again. When I played in Brittany last year, before every gig a table was laid out with food and wine, with enough time to enjoy them both leisurely before the gig. In France that's considered normal. Here, you're lucky if you get a free drink.

One of the simplest ways we could change culture would be to introduce rent-controls, as they do in Germany. In one fell swoop we'd rid the world of letting-agents, remove the stigma on renting, and give artists the space they need to create. But with the pension hopes of so many bound up in buy-to-let, I doubt I'll see this in my lifetime.

So I'm baffled really. I'm writing songs. There's albums that I want to record. But right now unless we do find new models, I doubt I'll get to make them. However much I love being a Dad (and it is bloody great!), I do feel sad about that.

Answers on a postcard please!


  1. Record your music, Andy. Keep going. Band or no band, keep going, keep producing art that lasts.

  2. Tough road. Most of us, like you, opt for a more stable lifestyle, even if it entails a "day gig"--some of which are much more or less pleasant than others. That said, I'd posit that the period of human society in which music objects (scores, piano rolls, or audio recordings) were the foundation of musicians' living wage is a very brief period--either from Edison through the Internet, or perhaps (arguably) back to Mozart (an unsuccessful music freelancer) or Beethoven (one of the first successful freelancers).

    Prior to that period of music-object-as-commodity--and I think in the post-object period--the model was *always* that the musician was another artisan, or maybe a priest, who performed a very practical function through music-making, through processes. Musicians didn't make more than other artisans, but their artisanry was valued and rewarded comparably to the artisanry of a carpenter, blacksmith, or priest. That's a good model and it sustained musical activities for thousands of years.

    I think we're in a remarkable watershed moment at the *end* of the period of music-as-commodified-object. That transition, back to an artisanal and functional model, is damned difficult, but what you've done by giving up the object-as-income model is consistent with most music made in most eras in most places by most musicians.

    Just a few thoughts.

  3. If Minimum wage ever gets to be a reality it should help you to keep doing what you love

  4. Your comments regarding the inability to make a living from music - this is the tip of the iceberg. This is coming to most jobs soon (within your lifetime). Most non-skilled and many semi-skilled jobs will be destroyed by the increasing robotisation of the world. When I say "robot" think computer, as some robots will simply be computation, others may look like a roomba, and others more humanoid.

    The remaining jobs will be high skill jobs requiring knowledge and semi-skilled jobs that require dexterity and decision making skills a robot can't do. Surprisingly this means the school janitor's job is safe. It's low skill, but highly dextrous and requires decision making. The other jobs that are safe are lawyers, doctors, etc, anything that requires lots of training and knowledge. These jobs will be augmented by computers. The defence for your daughter is most likely a good education in a numerate subject.

    You read more about this in "The Second Machine Age". I found it a fascinating book.

    Following on from this you need to address what happens in a society/world where most products are free, or zero marginal cost to produce. You need a different type of society. This is discussed in detail in "Post Capitalism" by Paul Mason.

    I highly recommend both books. Knowing you're a bookish person, there's a chance you may choose to investigate these. I can also recommend a third book for a slightly different take on this area if you are interested.

    I knew you'd left Telling the Bees, but not why. The reason saddens me, as I had assumed you had left because it had come to it's natural end. Sorry to hear about Wod. I enjoyed the BagSoc gig with Wod. I thought the band came over better live than on recordings.

    Stephen Kellett

  5. Two of the things you posit already exist. And you probably already know about them, come to think of it. Neither will make you rich but...

    1. "a bardic model, where musicians travel locally, from one warm welcome to the next, performing in people's homes"

    House concerts! Big in the US and Europe and with a modest network in the UK, a lot of folk acts I know love house concerts: they generally get more money than playing at a licensed venue; they get fed and watered; and they tend to sell more CDs.

    2. "Another possibility is that artists simply seek patronage from their fans ...and hope that sufficiently large number of people feel moved to contribute."
    Kickstarter and Bandcamp both provide readymade platforms for drumming up an advance/pre-orders for an album. Both allow punters to purchase goods/services other than recorded music (e.g. personalised songs, tuition, artworks - folksinger Hannah
    Sanders even sold spells & blessings!) in advance of albums.

    However, sadly, I think it's fairly safe to say that recorded music will never again be the income-generator it once was. The only format that people seem prepared to spend a reasonably substantial sum of money for is, ironically, vinyl. But even then, the unit-cost of a vinyl album will only really pay its way if you're pressing in very large numbers.

  6. 'Course, taking my cue from one of the posts above, it's worth stating something we all know: recorded music isn't the be-all-and-end-all. Especially in folk music. There is a whole swathe of music-making that has never really needed recorded music anyway: I'm thinking of The Singaround and The Session.

  7. Part 1:
    Sustainable music? I don't think you need to worry, Andy. As you yourself write (and I believe also), "Music is a necessity, not a luxury". Music will sustain itself, for that very reason, and likewise, people will continue to create it. Music that sustains the musician? that's a different kettle of fish; I believe that the last century, more or less, has been pretty anomalous as regards the number of "professional musicians" it has supported. Before music (as something we listen to) could be distributed in an easy-to-access format, be that wax cylinder, long-playing record, magnetic tape or CD, the only way to experience it was to go somewhere where somebody was doing it or do it yourself, which was obviously a less common occurrence than when we slip a disc into a player or poke at some digital device, and one requiring more effort. With the exception of street musicians, it was the rule for a performer (or Bard) to have a patron, as you pointed out yourself in your OBOD Mount Haemus lecture.
    The wealthier the patron, the more artists he could patronise, and one could argue that the "music biz" was just another form of patronage, adjusted to a capitalist rather than an aristocratic system, which financed itself through the very effective control of access to the commodified music it produced. One could argue that Sigismund von Schrattenbach did much the same with Mozart (as did the Pope with Gregorio Allegri, although young Amadeus subverted that particular example of "exclusive access"). From the renaissance until the advent of recording, "art music" and "popular music" had very little overlap, with the "artists" at least having a chance of living from their craft, whilst the "pop stars", such as they were, having very little opportunity (all exceptions admitted).

  8. Do you know about No idea how to make that a link but you can copy it into your browser. Seems like a brilliant idea and possibly a solution? x

  9. Part 2:
    Even in the heyday of the musical gravy train, there were exceptions - in an interview with Dr. Chris Ryan which I can't be bothered to find, the wonderful Tao Ruspoli cites one of the leading flamenco families of Andalucia who are all butchers (!?), when asked why this should be when they could easily live from their art, the paterfamilias (or whatever that should be in Spanish) replied that music is far too important to debase by playing for profit (a line I use frequently when trying to persuade my fellow musicians to play a gig that will barely cover the petrol required to drive there!).
    Now that the internet has "democratised" access to all sorts of media and knowledge, the system that allowed record companies to patronize artists has collapsed, with both positive and negative results - I would never have heard your music in Southern Germany under the old system, and Bandcamp has enabled me to buy Telling The Bees' albums, and that's just one example. On the other hand, the last-gasp-decadence of the music biz has made it much more difficult for my band, which plays very little original material, to find gigs - BMI/ASCAP/GEMA are so desperate to find income that they appear to monitor pubs and clubs to see if they put on concerts - I've even heard of a Kindergarten receiving demands for royalty payments.
    "Answers on the back of a postcard"? Don't try to do the impossible - there simply isn't a system by which musicians can expect to support themselves through their art - I know a number of "professional musicians", and the majority of them are frustrated - either they support themselves by giving lessons to mostly untalented wannabes or they find themselves required to play music that they dislike, for the sake of earning enough to keep body and soul together. Me, I'd rather keep the day job - another phrase I'm fond of is that "Music is like sex, it's much more satisfying to do it for love than for money". There is a long tradition of performers who also perform another function in society, I believe in nearly every culture, and not just in the european world. I see no shame in continuing that tradition.

    - Tim Waddington

  10. Taking another slant, we can only hope that the kids we spend our resources on will continue to hold the pass against all the things we feel are wrong. We chose making a difference over making money and our daughter's doing the same. This doesn't lessen the harshness of the choice you've just made and I honour you for it. - Joy at Inprint

  11. Chris Smith posted his above reply to Andy on FaceBook. Here is my reply to his comment:

    The thing that bothers me about the debate in general (not Andy's blog post), particularly in the US, is the conflation of "music" with the recording industry. Almost without exception everyone who comments on the issue, regardless of which side they are on--pro-musician vs pro-"free stuff"--refers to music when they really mean the recording industry.

    Instead of saying, "the digitization of music recording and the world wide web came along at a time when the recording industry--for the second time in less than 40 years--got surprised by technology that out paced their ca. 1920s business model," everyone writes/speaks about this as if it was a problem with "music." I find that sort of thinking not only imprecise, lazy, and unhelpful, it reveals an unconscious association/conflation of music with commerce that is so complete and unquestioned that it seems hard to conceive of musical activity that does not take place within its own unique marketplace.

    I think we can come closer to understanding this situation if we change our terminology and talk about the recording industry as such.

    The questions are: How to be musician in the digital age whose livelihood is not dependent on selling a recorded artifact? How to rescue music performance as a viable economic activity in its own right, rather than as a promotional activity for selling recordings (which was the dominant paradigm for many decades)? Or is there a different sort of artifact musical artists can sell that cannot be digitally duplicated?

    In a functional society artists and musicians would receive a living wage from the polity and be free to contribute their work and service to the commons. I know, not bloody likely in our current situation but I have hope.



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