I was pondering the other day whether I actually have a field of expertise. I thought for ages, and couldn’t come up with anything, and then in a blinding flash I realised, with a slight sense of despondency, what it might be: being in bands that people have never heard of. I’ve been doing it for years, now, and it’s incredibly easy. You get together with a few mates, write some songs, play some gigs, labour over some half-baked recordings, and fail to achieve any success whatsoever. It’s like falling off a log, seriously, and if you haven’t tried it, you should give it a go.
One thing that nearly all my bands had in common was a complete inability to get people to give us money in exchange for the recordings we’d made. As I’ll explain later, the MP3 revolution – if I’m allowed to call it that – has made that failure even more apparent, and the pain even more acute; it’s just few weeks since I went down to my local tip and recycled approximately 1,500 unsold CD albums in order to make room for my girlfriend’s burgeoning magazine collection. Her tatty copies of Vogue and Elle Decoration are worth more, square foot for square foot, kilo for kilo, than my CDs. I’d always suspected this, but that trip to Wandsworth dump confirmed it.
This talk was going to be called The Futility of Flogging Music. I’ve tweaked this slightly, because I’ve noticed that Columbia Records seem to be effortlessly selling CDs by The Ting Tings. So I changed it to The Futility Of Flogging Your Own Music. Although, actually, it’s probably just possible to flog your records to gullible family and friends, so let’s call it The Futility Of Flogging Your Own Music To People You Don’t Know Very Well.
The last time I was at this venue was, according to my diary, the 12th July 1991. I was in a band called The Keatons; we were rowdy, confrontational, and looked something like this. We were here supporting 14 Iced Bears, and if you’ve never heard of 14 Iced Bears, that might give you an indication of how monumentally insignificant we were. One thing sticks in my head about that evening; our guitarist, Dave, sitting on the steps going down from that side door over there, holding copies of our 12”EP, watching audience members leave at the end of the evening, and him saying “Excuse me. Please buy my record. P-p-please buy one. Or th-th-they’ll send me back THERE.”
Dave’s pathetic pleading had magnificent comedy value – although you obviously had to be there, like so many shithot rock’n’roll anecdotes – but he really meant it. We needed to scrape together the petrol money to get home, and if we didn’t, Dave would spend the next week living off instant mashed potato and milk stolen from next door’s doorstep. And we knew that the best chance to get anyone to part with money in exchange for our records was just after a gig, when people were hot, sweaty, disorientated, ears ringing and, crucially, pissed out of their heads. This is probably still the case. But, more often than not, we failed. Not because we were shit, necessarily – we were good enough for Blur to take us on tour as their support act – but as a result we became cynical about the process of selling records. Other bands that I was in just gave up trying to sell them, and just gave them away to mailing list subscribers instead. People couldn’t get their heads around it, in 1996. They didn’t understand. “What, it’s free?” they’d ask. Of course, at the time, we had no idea quite how prescient this was.
The only other way bands had of flogging records at that time was via an indie distributor. Actually making this happen was a soul-destroying, hellish process. For starters, the distributor would come up with a list of incredibly good reasons why they shouldn’t waste warehouse space on you, let alone try and sell in your music to the shops. Firstly, it was always the “wrong time of year”. Now, there was never a “right time of year”. They’d say to you: “Oh, there’s no point in putting out a record in the run-up to Christmas,” as if records by Bogshed or Shitbucket were somehow competing against sales of waffle irons or trouser presses. Then after Christmas, they’d tell you that no-one releases records right after Christmas, it’s a dead time. So, ok, we can’t release records when everyone else is, or indeed when no-one else is. In the summer, they’d say that there’s no point, the students have run out of money and they’re back at home for the holidays. So in September, or April, when they couldn’t really wield that excuse, they’d move to excuse number two.
“No-one knows who you are”, they’d say. “You need to put together a shithot publicity campaign. We need you to get your photo into magazines. We need you to get your record on radio playlists. We need you to arrange a full UK tour, and become album of the month in influential periodicals.” Now, for a DIY act to get a play on Radio Ceredigion in Aberystwyth is hard enough, so to reach the national media was incredibly difficult. You’d send out hundreds of albums at great expense, with a ridiculously overblown, optimistic press release, virtually all of which would be binned. John Peel was a rare beacon of light in this quagmire of misery – but even his patronage was insufficient to remove the ice from the frozen hearts of the distributors. And they’d inevitably move to reason number 3: You’re shit. These people wielded enormous power over DIY acts; they became embittered and hardened to the pathetic pleas of crap indie dance combos, and were perfectly happy to insult them to their faces.
Very occasionally, they would relent. They’d take 200 copies of your record, hang on to them for a few weeks, you’d then pop around and they’d sneeringly hand every single one of them back to you again, along with sales sheet prominently featuring the digit zero. They had to sell records to survive as a business; we failed to understand that. We thought they owed us the right for our records to be in the shops and, if they were, that this would somehow create demand. We laid the blame for our continued lack of success squarely at their door. We hated them. And they hated us.
But wind forward more than 15 years to 2008, and it’s manifestly obvious that they were right all along. Now that we’re put in touch directly with our audience and that distributors can be completely removed from the equation, and replaced by MP3 aggregators who a) don’t need warehousing space for your MP3s, b) will put them into a range of online stores for a flat fee and, crucially, c) don’t care whether you’re brilliant or whether you’re bloody awful, we have exactly the same problem selling the music as the distributors had. Just because the songs are available to buy, doesn’t mean we can sell them – in the same way that (and excuse the often-used analogy) installing a landline doesn’t mean that the phone is going to ring. And we can’t blame the distributors any more. The only people that are left to blame are ourselves. And that hurts.
It hurts because web technology lets us see exactly how many people are listening to our music. We can see the MySpace hit counters spin round, with the total number of listeners for each track. Our stats pages on our blogs show us how people arrived at our page, which country they’re from, even which web browser they’re using. We’ve got information about the reach of our music that we couldn’t have dreamed of 10 years ago, and it tells us that thousands upon thousands of people have their ears open, and they’re listening. But, by and large, and with a few exceptions, we can’t fucking sell music to them. And we’re starting to obsess about it. We can’t stand the fact that we have 2,739 friends on MySpace, several of whom have posted highly encouraging messages such as “thnx 4 the add”, and yet none of them are prepared to dig in their pocket, or Paypal account, and just send us a few quid – despite the fact that we’ve poured our heart, our soul and our cash into the whole endeavour.
But hang on. these people might be listed as “friends”, but that doesn’t necessarily make them fans, let alone fans who want to give us some money. There’s no way of knowing if they think we’re any good – in fact, they might hate us. But even the ones who love your music know that they wield the power, and that you are very much their bitch. As we all know, net-savvy music fans can download a track they love, for free, by any major label act you care to mention in a couple of minutes flat – so why on earth should we expect them to actually give us money for our tunes? The ease of using BitTorrent, Limewire, Soulseek and all these networks is erasing any guilt complex that music fans might have had over enjoying music that they haven’t paid for. There’s nothing we can do about this, that’s just the way it is. Deep down, I probably still believe that rewarding musicians financially for managing to come up with something that isn’t complete shit is the right thing to do – but filesharing is compulsive, it’s a tool you can’t NOT use once you know about it. What I do find hilarious is when people attempt to morally justify it. They either claim that they’re “sticking it to the man” (as if most musicians are swanning around in limousines, when the vast majority are scraping a living by working part time in Halfords) or “it’s OK, bands can make money by touring, instead”. Which is like casually suggesting to the owner of an off licence, after he’s spotted you nicking a bottle of wine, that he can sell a few crisps to make up for it. And anyway, The Rolling Stones might well gross millions on a world tour, but nearly all bands lose money hand over fist while on the road. People might come out with stats about live music revenues being on a gradual incline, but believe me – having been in bands known and unknown, and done tour budgets for countless others – touring represents a black hole of disappearing cash for musicians. Sound engineers might get paid, promoters ensure that they get their cut, but precious little filters down to the musicians, unless they’re lucky enough to get tour support from the record company. Which is actually an advance. Which means that, er, it’s their money in the first place. But anyway, after you’ve pointed all this out, the filesharer just says “well, bollocks, I’m just going to do it anyway.” And this kind of logic is impossible to argue with.
The morality of filesharing is obviously a huge question, and one that people can, and indeed do, talk about all night – but resistance to it is utterly futile, so it’s essentially a moot point. The difficulty I have with being a musician in a Web 2.0 world is the fact that press articles, blogs and web startups are all trying to persuade us that we should somehow be raking in the cash, that the web is providing us with a unique opportunity to earn decent money from our music. One blog called Music Think Tank is entirely devoted to this very concept. The posts, many of which I fundamentally disagree with, provoke comment threads where you can almost feel the desperation, because this holy grail of being paid for your art has been ratcheted up to a preposterous extent. There’s a recent post about a guy called John Taglieri, who has what he calls an “inner motto”. “I want what I want,” he says, “and you are either going to help me, or get out of my way.” John says that he had to disassociate himself from friends who were holding him back by telling him that there was no way he could make it. To me, this utterly joyless statement completely misses the point of playing music. Jonathan Coulton is another one; he is often cited as the king of online DIY music, because for 18 months he has been making a living by spending 6-8 hours a day vigorously social networking and sending birthday greetings to pre-pubescent girls in Wisconsin in the hope that she’ll send him her pocket money in return. Personally, I can think of nothing more soul destroying. And it’s worth noting that if I hadn’t been told that Taglieri and Coulton were supposedly famous internet successes, I would never have heard of them. David Thomas, from legendary American post-punk band Pere Ubu, has these wise words to say to me on the topic of social networking and music:
It encourages a delusional state in the audience, a warm and cosy feeling that their opinion matters and counts for a hill of beans. That they’re part of a community, in this case a community of creative endeavour, in which, of course, they have not participated… Screw the audience.This isn’t very helpful if you’re a musician trying to “make it” online in the 21st century, but I’d rather hear that than hear John Taglieri offering advice about “developing income streams”. Form a covers band to play weddings and barmitzvahs, he suggests. Hire out your amateurish music production skills! Buy a CD duplicating machine and charge people to use it! No thanks, John. I mean, sure, I could stay at home and watch my $8 earnings on Google AdSense slowly grow to $8.50; or I could play my heart out, for no money, to a bunch of people in a converted barn in Rhyl who are off their tits on magic mushrooms, have a really shit Welsh pizza for my tea, arrive home at 5am and have to get up for work at 7am. Yes, the latter option may appear stupid, but at least it’s living a little.
The internet has entirely switched the focus from making music to sales and marketing. While some might say that this is just the harsh reality, it’s what you have to do to survive, I say bollocks. I’m not just being romantic about this. There’s a choice: play gigs, experience that peculiar bonding you get with fellow band members, feel that curious mixture of love and antipathy you get from an audience – and make no money. Or obsess about selling mp3s – and make no money. My children, and my children’s children, certainly won’t want to hear about my tedious marketing efforts to secure a song that I wrote 250,000 views on YouTube. (Note that I sold barely 100 MP3s as a result of this colossal and unexpected exposure – which certainly made it an interesting experiment, but also a fairly solitary and unfulfilling one.) What would have made a better story would have been to wangle a gig in a Parisian squat where the electrics are dodgy, suffer a massive electric shock off a mike stand, get carried from the building while everyone cheers loudly, be left rubbing your head while slumped against the side of your van, the promoter takes advantage of the confusion by running off with the mixing desk which he’s holding ransom because he claims that the PA company owe him money, at which point you realise that you’re not going to get paid, and you look at your fellow band members, and then you start to cry. That’s the story I’d rather tell, and frankly it’s the story I’d rather hear. Music’s biggest function, from time immemorial, has never been its capacity to make money. It’s its powerful social glue. Without wishing to get all Oprah on your ass, it may be an expensive hobby, but it brings people together in an utterly unique fashion.
In any case, why pursue this mythical pot of cash, when nearly all bands that come into money are inevitably be torn apart by it? Entire musical genres are propped up by people not being quite able to afford to be involved in them, and people who obsess over clawing back cash from the enterprise are entirely missing the point. Slight poverty is what drives music forward. It only works if you’re in the red. You’ve never felt so alive as when you’ve just maxed out your credit card to get your band on a cross channel ferry for a one-off gig in Antwerp. Seriously. You know, it’s like biographies of bands. The most interesting bit is the first bit, you know, the horror, where they’re playing shit venues to small crowds, and the pointlessness of it all is on the verge of driving them insane. When they get to the bit where they turn up at a plush venue and there’s a dozen Cantaloupes and a melon baller in the dressing room, well, that’s when I stop reading. Their passion has disappeared at that point. It’s just not interesting. Of course, there’s probably a valid question to be asked about whether, if the monetizing of music is eventually revealed to be a pointless battle, whether people will be quite so interested in forming bands. But again, it’s not about money, is it. I don’t go and watch Red Pony Clock or Desalvo and imagine that they’re doing it because there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They’re doing it because they want to show off. And quite right too.
In the unlikely event of anyone wanting my advice, it would be to stop worrying about selling recordings. Just give them away. Let them go. Put them online for free, and tell people that they’re there. And if, against the odds, you’ve been given some cash, you’ve managed to release an album commercially, and you see that someone has posted it on a blog for readers to download – for god’s sake don’t get angry. Don’t see it as being down £20. See it as being up 20 listeners. Yes, your music might conceivably have been stolen, but there are no police. So get used to it. And now you’re freed of this burden, pursue all the other things that you want from being in a band – writing songs, rehearsing, doing gigs, building relationships with other bands, going on wallet-busting tours, receiving unmemorable blowjobs. Because seriously, you’re almost more likely to get a blowjob after a gig than sell an MP3. And remember – just because music doesn’t make you money, certainly does NOT mean that it’s worth nothing.