Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Our guitarist is angry, you may or may not like him when he is angry!

Why are bands prostitutes for the promoter pimps?
An insight to the world of unsigned music.

The first blog post by Peter Davis – Lead guitarist in The Blue Screen Of Death

Having just got off the phone to a London promoter (for a venue that shall remain nameless), I am disgusted with the world of unsigned music. This is a rant about what has just been discussed.

Firstly, a little about me: I have been playing in bands since I was in secondary school. Various different line-ups of the band have come and gone, however my good friend Steve George and I have been making music together since our voices were squeaky and facial hair was but a dream. We have always dreamed of a life in music. Not necessarily rock and roll hall of fame heights, just the idea that we could play original music and maybe make a living from it. This dream, over the years, has been slowly chipped away at; crumbling away like poorly built foundations bringing down a house made of aspiration and ambition.

So many people come up to me saying “it must be great to be in a band” and “do you earn good money, I bet you earn good money don’t you?”. These people have no idea whatsoever of what it is like to be in a creative band.

Yes, if you play in a function band, playing other people's music like a glorified jukebox, there is money to be made. Function bands can earn up to £2000 pounds for a wedding, not to mention the hundred quid or so per night they might pick up playing residencies at local pubs. I admire the idealism of people who think we are getting paid the same rates for expressing our artistic vision, unfortunately this is very far removed from the reality of the situation.

Case in point: The promoter I spoke to wanted us to give him £180 up-front (30 tickets at £6 each) which we were then tasked with selling ourselves in order to reclaim our money. If we sold them all he would give us another 30 tickets from which we were free to keep the profits. In other words, we were expected to pay him a huge sum of money for the privilege of doing his job for him.

Obviously, he has to negotiate a fee with the venue to stage the night, but from chatting to the owners/managers of many venues this is usually no more than meeting their flat hiring fee and covering a sound engineer’s wages. Bar staff are almost always paid by the venue (typically from bar profits). The 'promoter' has therefore been paid handsomely for the simple act of hiring a venue and a soundman, and can now put his feet up and relax while the bands rush around desperately trying to sell enough tickets to break even. Anyone else see anything wrong with this picture?

Bear in mind most nights it will not be just one band playing. At least 3 bands will play at your average local live show, at a push up to five bands could be squeezed in depending on the venue's licence. What venue charges anywhere near £900 to put on a night? None. The promoter’s standard line of defence is “I need to make a living”. So the band who created the music, rehearsed for hundreds of hours and braved standing in front of an audience don’t deserve to make a living?

The promoter wants you to bring in the customers, serve the customers what they want and then take a cut of the profit. Sounds to me very similar to another profession. The world's oldest. Substitute the word 'band' for 'prostitute' and the word 'promoter' for 'pimp'. The prostitute walks the street bringing in the customers, does the deed, and then the pimp takes his share.

Before I get a hail of abuse from women’s right activists, I am not saying that being in a band is as hard as being a prostitute. For instance I do understand that if bands don’t bring people to the gig, a man called Vladimir will not come and break our legs. Neither are the bands at risk of being mentally/physically/sexually abused by the crowd (although that does depend on how good or bad you are). I’m simply using a shocking metaphor to convey the message to people who might be otherwise ignorant to how bands are treated, and how this disgraceful treatment can make us feel. If you are a pimp who feels you have been misrepresented in this article, I’m sorry, I have clearly seen the film ‘Taken’ (dir. Pierre Morel 2008) one too many times.

This kind of behaviour is not just limited to London. My band is based in Southampton where, if we wish to play a venue with pro lights and sound, we are bringing the people in ourselves. Most of our local promoters don’t ask for money up front but give us a batch of 30 tickets to sell. If we sell 20 or more (at a rate usually between £5-7 each), we get to keep a pound for every ticket we sell. If we sell fewer than 20, we get nothing. Apparently this is supposed to incentivise us to promote interest in the gig. If only there were someone for whom that was their sole job...

When you take into account what we spend on renting rehearsal space, fuel travelling to gigs, even general upkeep for our instruments, £1 pound per ticket shared by four band members doesn’t exactly travel far. All these costs accounted for and being a musician becomes just an expensive hobby and definitely not a career choice.

The other bug bear I have with being in an unsigned band is people who think that free music downloading is justified. At a party I sarcastically thanked a guy who had been boasting about never paying for music or films, for flushing the world of music down the toilet. I explained he was taking things that a band had spent time and money making – for free – which is morally no different from stealing goods from a shop, you just don’t have to look anyone in the eye. He tried to justify his stealing by saying “well if people get to hear your music easily then they will come to your gigs”. A point which may have had some minor validity were it not for the fact that WE DONT GET PAID FOR GIGS! Well the majority anyway.

One notable exception is a Southampton venue who still do things the old-fashioned way. I’m happy to mention it by name because it is such a great pub. The Hobbit on Bevois Valley Road actually pays bands a pre-disclosed fee, on the night, to play. The Hobbit charges £2 for entry after 10pm on a Friday and Saturday, and is free to enter at any other time, which doesn’t price lots of people out of going to gigs. This guarantees customers at the bar, which in turn brings in more than enough money to keep everyone paid and happy.

I will admit you can’t convince someone to spend more than £5 on seeing four bands who they haven’t heard of. If all the bands are unsigned then the entry fee should be cheap to encourage people in and to give the bands the exposure they deserve.

This just topped off by the fact that this month I read in the news that Apple, the owner of iTunes, have made record profits of $13.06 billion (£8.36 billion). How can a massive corporation with such huge profits justify charging unsigned bands £30 a year to put their tracks on iTunes? £30 a year is surely not much to them but it does add up as just another cost on top of all the other costs we are paying.

So where now for unsigned bands? To be honest I don’t know. I keep reading lots of interesting ideas on the internet of guerilla style gigs played in people’s living rooms with just acoustic instruments. A charitable donation for the performer is asked for on the door. But it’s not a format all bands can work in.

Do we go on X-factor? Believe it or not, when I mention to people that I am a musician; a few people actually suggest it. A brief lesson please to all these degenerates: Karaoke nights were invented for a reason, to satisfy a drunken fool's dream of being famous for a bit. Suddenly this is prime time Saturday night entertainment. Want to go see some bands trying to make a living playing original music? No! Why spend money when a glorified karaoke show with pantomime heroes and villains is played out to the comfort of your arm chair.

As you may have guessed, I hate X-factor, everyone involved in its making and anybody who watches it, so it’s easy for me to vent my anger on to them. Who remembers T4 Orange Act Unsigned? Thought not. What about the band Hijack Oscar? Thought not, again. This was a shameful attempt to make an X-factor for bands. Exactly how bands shouldn’t be dealt with. A band’s place is doing what it wants on the live stage. The audience’s place is to judge however they want. But that audience should be let in for a small fee which goes to people who put on the production (i.e. the band and crew). If the audience doesn’t like it, what have you lost?

If you do like it you can go and pay for a download or a CD if you are old fashioned like me (they do sound better, I don’t care what you say!). Paying for the download is only fair as bands spend on average £250 a day to record in a studio. It’s not much to ask is it really?

Next time a friend asks you to go and see his/her band, why not just say yes. After reading this I hope you will. If his/her band is rubbish then criticize them constructively. There is no such thing as bad music, it's only people’s opinions (this rule does not apply when referring to N-Dubz). I hope this has been an enlightening insight to the world of unsigned music. Now get out there and see some bands!

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