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!