Friday, October 17, 2014

Nerina Pallot, Bob Lefsetz, 'the Troubadour' and whether musicians actually deserve to get paid at all

The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side...

Hunter S Thompson

Nerina Pallot is a talented, fascinating and highly articulate musician, and during an interview and session she did for my radio show, she revealed that she's a big fan of the streaming service Spotify, as am I.

This is very unusual for a so-called 'professional' musician, most of whom complain bitterly about how little cash they make from the service. The American  commentator Bob Lefsetz is, however, blunt: Streaming is the future, the ownership model of music is over, CDs are almost dead, vinyl is a nostalgic souvenir, and it's the selfish big-business interests clinging on within the record industry who are stopping the Netflix model of TV and movies taking over music. If you're a musician complaining, it's because you're not good enough. End of. Face the future and get on with it.

I wouldn't go that far. Nerina talked about the concept of the 'troubadour', the 12th and 13th Century travelling musicians who had no regular income and were dependent on the generosity of common people for food and hospitality, or on rich patrons for protection and sustenance. Many, however, chose to remain independent as the very concept of 'troubadour' was about being able to criticise the status quo and the powers that be. She points out that making money from recorded music is an idea barely 60 years old, that playing live and sharing your songs is a mission, a vocation; that if you're serious you would do it whether you got paid or not. And again, if you're good, people will pay to see you or buy a souvenir or two. A T shirt. A badge. A signature on a sleeve. A meal and a bed for the night. And if you have to do that only at weekends, because you've a job and a family - well. Lucky you.

Nerina has various strings to her bow. She plays live, she has had a few major record deals (all rejected by her on grounds of interference with her own vision) but a serious publishing deal has I think sustained her, with songs being recorded and performed by all kinds of people, including X Factor competitors (Diana Vickers, Joe McEldery) and major artists like Kylie Minogue. She's also married to top producer and songwriter Andy Chatterly, which can't be harmful. And she pushes at the envelope, this year (2014) recording and releasing in downloadable and 'solid' media an 'EP' every month (funny how we still use those outdated vinyl-era terms). She has tackled the year like a troubadour, she has a smallish fan base that supports her, those pop royalities come in, and yeah, she gets some cassh from Spotify and YouTube as well. She's her own little industry. But she is under no illusion that music owes her a living. Maybe you need a day job to allow you to keep playing and writing, she says.

Fact is, Spotify or YouTube - streaming - is now how most major consumers of music first listen to tunes. Either for free or on subscription. They may download albums if they're serious fans of a particular artists, or even buy specially packaged vinyl or a CD as a keepsake. But nearly all of us are listening digitally now, on phones or computers or on our Internet connected TVs. And it's a fact that much less money is being made by artists, because there is less money to be made.

The 70s, with their vast advances, ludicrous self indulgence, swimming pool Bentleys and rock star mansions, are gone. Yes, you can still be successful, yes, major pop stars can emerge and become millionaires, but the deals nowadays are '360', taking in everything from merchandise and sync to live gigs and online advertising. The idea of an industry which sustains everyone from small-scale niche artists to major pop stars is over. I've lost count of the number of 'professional' musicians whose 'full time status' is actually that of house husband/wife, with the family bills being met by a partner possessing a 'proper' job.

Bottom line, and this is where all those college courses on 'commercial music' need to be much more hard-edged and economically realistic, is that the vast majority of musicians in future, ones who in the past may have been  lower division full-timers, will be hobbyists or semi-pro. College courses, like instrument shops, feed fantasies and some of those dreamers need to be shaken awake.

Talent is not enough to put food on the table and pay a mortgage; even a small and devoted following may not be adequate. Maybe you'll have to teach, drive a taxi, clean,  keep house, be a postman or woman, a waiter or waitress, a cook, bottle washer or for that matter shop owner, or business executive. You could enter the X Factor and go from a decent, normal talented person with a dream to some hard-nosed, caked-on-make-up cartoon, putty in the hands of truly horrible svengali-figures or brutal businesses, kicked aside when your moment is up. Because in the end, showbiz sucks.

Not everyone can be a Nerina Pallot. Not everyone is that talented, that secure financially, that fiercely self assured and intellectually committed (she gave up music at one point to do an English degree). But in the degree of control she exercises over her own work, her acceptance of economic and artistic realities, she may be a useful example to younger artists.

If you love music, you'll write and play and keep on writing and playing, no matter what.  You'll stay true to your vision, compromise occasionally, make mistakes and fail. Sometimes you'll succeed, but maybe not for long. But you'll keep going. Because it's more than what you do, or what you fantasise about. It's who you really are.


Graham Robertson said...

Thanks for this Tom

And I think you're dead right. I'm a teacher but inside there's lots of songs waiting to get out - and they do regularly. Truth is with more and more promoters looking for significant ticket sales - more often than not musicians are raying to play!


Graham Robertson said...

Of course - Raying to play should read "paying"