I love Dave Grohl. The Foos aren’t my favourite band, but you can’t fail to like him. He’s worked very hard and deserves his current legendary status.
But I disagree with the above quote. The statement was made by Dave in a recent Digital Spy interview in opposition to Taylor Swift’s public grumbling about how much money she wasn’t earning from her bazillion plays on Spotify.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about the live show. There’s no better buzz as a musician than walking out on stage to a venue of eager fans or even an audience you’re determined to win over.
I live to play live. But I’m not sure Mr Grohl is right. I’d be more than happy to give my music away if I knew that every time I played a show there was an audience waiting to hear those tunes they’d downloaded for free.
But the reality is sadly very different for struggling bands. Even Dave, when interviewed on BBC breakfast this week admitted he didn’t understand how a band starting out can afford to go on the road. The answer is they can’t.
Yes you can get gigs yourself, but the process is shitty, laborious and often fruitless. Promoters are like you, they need to stay in the game. They need bodies in their club. They seldom gamble and the only slots they can offer new bands come with a price. How many tickets can you shift? What’s that? Your not from my town so probably none? Sorry.
To reach a sustainable audience, a band need an agent and a press officer or publicist/plugger. To get those a band needs a deal. To get a deal a band needs to be seen as commercially viable. To be commercially viable a band needs to be seen to be seen to be selling product and building a fan base.
SELLING a product. Running a record label in today’s climate is a very risky business. Even labels with a bit of cash and a back catalogue keeping them comfortably afloat can’t afford to take gambles on that scale – on ‘just a hunch’. One mistake can sink their business in today’s climate. So it’s much better to back a horse that’s already looking like a winner than an outsider. I still love the idea of cottage industry record labels. Even if they’re set up by the band themselves. I like the idea that people still want to work hard to bring you really cool music that you might not get to hear otherwise.
I like to buy a record (or even a cd) with a sleeve and artwork and pictures that someone has lovingly dreamed up as a package for me to consume. Old fashioned I know.
And that’s where I question the idea that giving your music away for free is a good idea.
That, in my opinion, puts you exactly in the same position as every other band fighting for attention with listeners, promoters, agents, record labels and journalists.
Making a good record costs money. Yeah, sure, everyone can download recording software. But your recordings aren’t going to stand out against the millions of other ‘recorded-in-my garage’ free downloads on ReverbNation and the like, unless you’re a brilliant recording engineer as well as a songwriter and performer.
Good engineers and producers cost money. So is that a hit you should just take on the chin? My group outlaid over a thousand pounds to record our album released last year. I couldn’t begin to add up rehearsal studio costs shelled out to write the record.
We have jobs. We don’t really want it that way, we’d all love to make a living making and performing our music. I was lucky enough to be able to do that for the majority of the nineties, but those days are long gone.
So we work hard and invest a sizeable amount of effort and money to make our product the best it can be. If we made sandwiches or clothes we’d want to be paid for them. Why shouldn’t we want to be paid for making our records? Music is art. You pay for art prints. You pay for t shirts with band art work on. But you don’t want to pay for what is arguably a musician’s most important work, his or her music?
Our record is available on iTunes and Amazon as well as Spotify. We also have physical. I’ve lost count the amount of times someone has said, “Hey Pete, I checked out your new record on Spotify. I loved it!” So I respond with. “Thanks. I really appreciate that. You should come see us play, we’re on at X”. Do they come? No. Truth is, most people don’t go to gigs. Especially ones at the Spit and Sawdust, in that shitty part of town. Why bother? I can listen to your band for free.
Our last record was released through a ‘credible’ indie label with distribution in the United States. The label scrapes by and works hard to get music it loves to an audience.
Without the income from selling music the label would die. There are many labels in the UK like this. They’re not money grabbing major labels. They do it because they love it. Because they find cool stuff to listen to and want to share it with you.
But they need to generate income in order to survive and like it or not the media, be it press or radio or tv, when faced with a glut of content to review or play, still use the traditional method of (rightly or wrongly) sorting the wheat from the chaff – do they have financial backing? In short, they listen to bands with deals. Bands with a press agent and a radio plugger. Bands who are commercially viable. What’s that? Arctic Monkeys made it into the charts without a ‘deal’? Trust me, they had all the above carefully in place first. I guarantee it.
Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think giving away your music diminishes the effort you’ve made to make it. It removes it’s value and regardless of how much time and money you’ve invested in making it, it places it firmly amongst all the other millions of bands or artists who make music and make it available for free. It cheapens it. There, I’ve said it.
Like it or not, we live in a capitalist society. How many times have we heard ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’ and that mindset applies to give away music I think: if it’s free, it must be crap.
Dave Grohl can afford to give away his music. The Foo Fighters are a stadium act. U2 gave you their new album whether you wanted it or not if you had iTunes or an iOS device and how did that go down with the archetype music consumer? Like a cup of cold sick.
I don’t and have never expected to be wealthy off the back of making music. But like millions of other musicians, I work as hard at making records as I do performing them so to me there’s no difference in value between the two mediums. Why shouldn’t your recorded music be another way of keeping your project afloat? And what if the music you make isn’t really something you can perform live?
At the moment, for a certain class of artist, the money to survive lies in live performance. But at a grass roots level, you’re as likely to get paid for a live performance as you are for selling an mp3. Struggling artists should have the opportunity to maximise their commercial potential to survive. That’s right. Survive. Not get rich. Just afford to make the next record. Or pay for the petrol to get to their next gig, cos chances are, they won’t be earning enough from that show to even get them there.
Personally, I think the ‘right on’ thing to do is not to expect to get their music for free, but the next time you discover an artist you like, whoever they are, buy their music. Chances are, it won’t cost you very much. Show your support to keep that artist going and you’ll be showing an old school music industry that these guys are actually worth a punt. And as a result, they might just make it to the next level, however tiny that step might be.
By all means take U2’s album for free. I don’t give a fuck about them. God knows they’ve had had plenty of our hard earned over the years. But genre defying Garage Punk Reggae Dubstep Crossover band from Crawley probably won’t get to make that awesome second record unless you support them.
I have a 13 year old son and I’m proud to say that because he knows his dad works very hard at making his records and playing shows, he uses his pocket money to pay for music. Yes we all know the money that goes to the artist isn’t great at the moment but that’s because not enough people are buying music. Sadly, I think it’s unlikely the status quo will change any time soon if big artists who can afford to give their music away continue to do so. But it sets the expectation. “I didn’t have to pay for U2, why should I have to pay for your record?”
In my opinion, if you love new music, want to keep it alive and developing, show your support by paying for it AS WELL AS going to their shows. They need all the help they can get.