Broken Circuit (part one)

Attend any UK music industry event – conference, panel, seminar, whatever – and I guarantee there is one remark you will always hear.

“Well, of course, the money is all in the live circuit these days”

That sentence has become something of a meddlesome punctuation mark, a baffling conversational three-dot-ellipsis that all too often leads nowhere.

But what is my problem with it? Is it not self-explanatory? Now that U2 have just broken the Rolling Stones’ world record for highest grossing tour (taking an average of about £4,000,000 per show) that statement may be true – at least at Bono’s level… the level where it’s not considered stupid to wear sunglasses indoors.

But what about at the independent level?

No one with more than a passing interest in the medium of recorded sound can be ignorant of the increasingly persistent truth that album and single sales are in decline (ignore the massive blip that is the Brit School phenomenon Adele). In the last year this subject has received an avalanche of coverage, seeing stories about the misfortunes of labels like EMI (which in 1931 laid the foundations of the music business as we know it) and the retail giant HMV leap from the pages of industry insider magazines to the headlines of the mainstream news networks.

But venues are closing down too. Much loved nightspots such as the Luminaire in London and Jilly’s in Manchester have shut their doors for the final time and more will undoubtedly follow. Can we not suppose then that the entire industry is in decline, not just the sale of records?

These two developments may have taken place side by side but they were certainly not hand in hand. One stems from the incompetency of major record labels in adapting to the maturation of the distribution business, the latter is an inevitable consequence of economic recession (one that should right itself at the same time as people start going on holidays again and renewing their subscriptions to Oxfam and the RSPCA). The real shame in the venue crisis, however, is that whilst one could argue that the internet was always destined to demolish the traditional revenue streams of the recording industry, the live circuit should be enjoying something of a renaissance.

In a world where we can stumble across an unknown artist and within minutes access everything they’ve ever released (or uploaded) along with promotional videos, concert films, reviews, images, biography, whereabouts, blogs, breakfast preferences (the list is endless) then surely the funnelling of that fresh interest towards the live arena becomes child’s play. To say that concert promotion has been made easier (not to mention cheaper) by the internet is, of course, to over-simplify the matter (after all, it’s easy to get lost among all the voices screaming for attention) but the fact that promoters and artists across the board appear to be getting more rather than less jaded about the whole process is, to my mind, absolutely maddening.

The problem – in the UK at least – is a dearth mainly in trust, communication and imagination. Here’s an example from my own past that could be about any one of a million different rock/pop/indie/folk/metal/whatever bands that formed in the last decade:

A few years ago I played my umpteenth gig at a well established Manchester venue which shall – for health reasons (mine) – remain nameless (let’s just say it has been around for about twenty years, began life as a chip shop and once got mentioned in an episode of the hit USA TV show “LOST” – which I don’t follow so am ignorant of the context). We were the only band on the bill (though brought our own guest acts from the label) and were on an 80% share of net ticket sales (priced at £8/£6). We filled the place and, after divvying up the cash between my band and the support artists, my cut somehow came to about £25 while the bar probably made about £4000 selling Red Stripe at £3.60 a can.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this venue is crooked. Really I’m not. These events are never as straight-forward as they look and it’s important to remember all the different factors and hidden fees at work here: on top of general running costs there’s the price of saturday night door security, sound engineer, back-handers to the local hoods, beard tax (what do I know?). Still though, something isn’t working the way it’s supposed to.

To home in even closer, I have it on good authority that this particular building is owned outright and that the rates are next to nothing. I also suspect they haven’t replaced their equipment since the Cold War. Consequently the outgoings are comparatively low for a venue of such repute (NB elsewhere in this city the vastly superior Band On The Wall requires about £600 a night just to cover costs – they do, however, receive Arts Council assistance… but for how long I wonder?).

Anyway, enough of the specifics. The issue here is far older, wider and vaguer. It boils down to a profound deficit in the relationships between venue, promoter, artist and audience. There is no one guilty party here – the whole infrastructure is rotten.

Since that night I have changed two things about the way I book shows. One of them is that I now only ever play in Manchester when the event is organised by either myself or the label (I live there so it makes sense – I’d cut out the middlemen everywhere if it was practical); the second is that if I’m on a door split deal in other cities I demand to see a breakdown of costs preferably with receipts (after all, if the money was going through my hands on its way to them I’m sure they’d demand similar evidence). Generally, however, I prefer a flat fee or mixture of door and guarantee figure. The latter encourages both parties to put the work in (though it is generally not an option for emerging bands).

Put in simple terms: I do not trust the people I am supposed to be working with and they do not trust me.

We all know that ideally the whole process should be a collaborative effort between an enthusiastic promoter, an encouraging venue, an eager crowd and an entertaining live act (and preferably the one ‘E’ that gets left out is Ego but that’s not always possible). I have been playing shows in this country for about ten years and would struggle to give you ten examples of gigs where this has actually been the case. In contrast, after a recent two week tour of Germany, Austria and Switzerland I can list you ten without pausing for breath (see the tour blog for details).

There’s an entirely separate article to be written about the flaws in the UK live circuit, preferably published in tandem with others on similar themes composed by representatives from the different areas of the entertainment business. This is a venture I’ve been planning to get stuck into for a while and it’s on my list of proposals for future Debt Records and Un-Convention projects.

That, however, is merely an exercise in data collection. Right now I am interested in the social implications of this needlessly fragmented and self-conscious industry and (with my ears still ringing from the overseas gigs) I intend to level particular scrutiny on why there is such a marked difference between the live experience on the continent and in the UK.

FIRST PUBLISHED APRIL 2011

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