Love Playing Hate the Game.

Thoughts on the music industry, art vs commerce, and life goals.


Until recently I was in an “indie” band called Years & Years. Indie is in inverted commas for good reason and I will come back to this later.

In the beginning

I started Years & Years back in 2010; I’d been wanting to get a music project off the ground for a while when I met Mikey. It was his first night out in London as I recall — a charity gig in Camden. We struck it off and the next week we decided to have our first tentative practice. I had what I considered to be a pretty open mind with regards to the musical direction of the project and as a result started from scratch, not using any of our previous material. I wanted it to grow organically and find its own form. In hindsight a more focused road map outlining my intentions may have been a good idea.

We proceeded to pick up members, Emre next via formingbands.co.uk then Olly via a friend of Mikey and topped off with Olive just before or first ever gig. All the while Mikey operating as head of HR.

Goals

It’s safe to say that my intentions and goals for the project may not have been totally in line with those of other band members, and as time went on, the opinions of external interested third parties.

My primary goals were as follows:

  1. Expression — Use the band as a vehicle for personal expression and creative endeavours.
  2. Recognition — Create something of artistic value and critical acclaim.
  3. Sustainability — Have it not cost me too much.

The goals of others included:

  1. Get signed — Preferably to a big label that can take things to the next level.
  2. Get famous — Goes with the territory but seen as desirable.
  3. Get rich — Quit the day job and earn a living off the band.

It’s not that these goals are necessarily mutually exclusive, but more often than not, certain conflicts of interest would become apparent. This became even more apparent once there was a “team” in place with their own motives.

Some of the above points may seem similar but it’s the subtle differences that make a world of difference.

Pros and cons

Let me briefly explain the pros of my goals and the cons of the goals of others:

Expression: When starting the band, one of my aims was to use it to help me get a job. Poke was the company I wanted to work at and the band was going to be my extra-curricular activity, my passion. To prove I had a life and creativity beyond the realm of my desk. It was to allow me to create posters, artwork, logos, music videos, websites and ultimately music — with a purpose. A project to hang my various endeavours off of. The one thing I felt the band needed to do was play gigs — this would justify it, make it a real band. It’s safe to say the project has outgrown its initial purpose. I’d created a monster. As time went on my creative input was vetoed and corralled to the point where I’d just end up playing what I was told, changing artwork to meet the whim of the label and rushing the video at the request of management. All in the name of commerce, chasing the approval of major labels at the expense of actual personal creative expression.

Recognition: Actually, recognition may not be the right word but I still wanted to create good work and have that work recognised. Creative output (primarily music) that is critically acclaimed by my peers was a key goal — well I’m only human, we all like to be appreciated at some level. Note there is a key difference between critical acclaim and fame.

Sustainability: Being in a band and keeping it running is not cheap. I’ve not done all the maths, but rehearsal space, equipment, gigging, making videos and all kinds of other expenses all add up. Much more than the odd iTunes download can make up. I am not so naive as to expect the band to make money right away. It’s in something of an investment/pitch phase that will hopefully pay off in the form of a cash injection from a third party. This sadly involves pandering to those that hold the purse strings at the expense of doing what you want. There are other ways to sustain a project like a band. In short there is no such thing as a free lunch — I’d rather buy my own lunch. More on this later.

Get signed: Although the idea of being in a signed band is not completely abhorrent to me, it was never a primary goal. If it was on our terms and to the benefit of my first three primary goals, then sure. But to see the “record deal” as a gleaming hope, the light at the end of the tunnel that will save you from your day job seems absurd. It’s not the 90s anymore.

Fame = Advertising

I often work in advertising and as far as I can tell, fame is advertising that stalks you. It’s a billboard that follows you round pointing a big flashing arrow at you with the CTA “Buy This”. I completely understand that it’s a necessary evil if you’re trying to make a living from the music industry. You reach a larger audience, and with more fame your perceived value to brands increases. As a result, back story, personality and mass appeal to key demographics are of far higher importance than the music/art itsself. Admittedly an element of credibility and authenticity is desirable but this is very much a secondary concern when it comes to making money. I know it’s an extreme example but for me one word sums up this model — Jedward.

Get rich: Over half of all musicians (56%) are earning less than £20k per annum, with one in five earning less than £10k from working as a musician. A staggering 78% of musicians are earning a gross annual income of less than £30k.1 Once you factor in the 20% for management, 10% of shows for the live agent, lawyer fees, etc. on top of the production, video, PR costs, and so on before you divide it by the band members, the band has to make a lot of money for the members to even make a modest income. It strikes me that there is a simpler way, provided hitting that top 5%, and doing whatever it takes to get there is of less priority than creating the art you want on your own terms. It seems that earning most of your money outside of “the music industry” is more reliably lucrative and allows you to create what you want, on your own terms, and indebted to no one.

Art vs Commerce

Artists have needed patrons to survive since the start of creative industries. Brands and businesses also hanker to be associated with cool or interesting acts and artists. Personally I feel I compromise my artistic and creative output on a day-to-day basis for money — it’s called “work”. I don’t want to be doing this on my own time. I have little interest in making “Primark” music. If the music I want to make happens to have an audience that will pay for it or a commercial application, then that is a bonus. Putting on nights, selling merch to make a bit of money and doing artistically interesting collaborations and projects to raise the profile of the band while allowing time to earn a real living at the same time would be ideal. Then if at some point a record is picked up by the right label or other commercial backer of some kind to further the project, then that is a total bonus too.

Showbiz. I hate everything about showbiz. Everything. Lou Reed 2
The I Wish I Knew launch gig. The “Unpaid Intern” T-shirt was always a comment on the industry but I never realised how accurate it was.

Bad News

During the past four years I read a lot about the music industry and how not to get screwed over. As a result I always imagined the battles would be with labels for control of rights or with a publisher over a better deal. I didn’t expect my project to rot away from the inside. I’ve not mentioned much about the actual band its self, I can only put this down to the fact that it’s quite hard to talk about. Four years of building something up — investing time and money at the expense of other aspects of my life is a hard thing to give up. It might sound from my pervious words that I was pleased to leave and that it was my choice. That is not the case — both myself and Olive our drummer, were informed somewhat out of the blue that we were no longer required. Apparently this is due to management pressure to be more streamlined and commercially viable. “Restructure or risk losing management and label interest” seemed to be the message. Although I can’t help but think that some element of creative direction also came into play. I’ve not chased the “whys” too hard as it seems either way the outcome would be the same — the decision had been made, it was not a debate. The other option, namely that of pushing back, and perhaps looking for new management/labels with shared values down the line does not seem to have been considered.

In conclusion

I keep looking back at moments in the band’s history to date that at the time seemed relatively inconsequential that have since proven themselves to be decisive. These seem to be every time I brought up the aims and goals of the band. “What sort of labels would we like to work with if any?”, “What alternatives are there?”, “What sort of brands and partnerships would be happy with?”, “How do we want to position ourselves?”, “What do we each of us want to get out of this project, and what is our common ground?”. All these questions and more were given little time or conscious thought from the rest of the band. We certainly never discussed these things to the degree that we should have. If we had we would not be in the situation we are now. We seemed to sleepwalk from one decision to the next, jumping through each industry hoop as they were presented. Always trying to impress seemingly important industry figures in Milgram-esq3 acquiescence, not considering the bigger picture and what we actually wanted out of the band ourselves. In conclusion if I had my time over again I think I would have sat everyone down — perhaps even before a note was played to agree what we were doing and why. I didn’t … or at least not with enough conviction to prevent being kicked out of my own band. I learnt my lesson and as cynical as it may seem I am making sure I operate as a solo artist with collaborators as opposed to in a “band”. It’s sad but seems necessary — you don’t know who you can trust.

Noel

…One last thing. Here is a remix of Traps that I did ages ago, never likey to see the light of day so go grab it if you want it.

https://soundcloud.com/orac808/traps-orac808remix