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Wednesday, 24th April 2019
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How Do they Get Away With It!

Joni Mitchell North West FolkIt amazes me. I’m thinking here about one particular aspect of the music business. That last word is particularly significant. Business.

Young musicians in Manchester, and probably all over Europe, turn up night after night as solo acts or in bands of committed and very talented musicians and songwriters and perform in pubs and clubs for NOTHING. Yes, it’s true. They practise, they bring their instruments, they set up and they perform for absolutely nothing. This has to be one of the greatest scams in the modern world.

The managers of all these venues must be laughing all the way to the bank because this talented group of kids are so keen to find somewhere that will display their wares that they ask for nothing in return. Nothing.

Even a busker gets more with a tin can on the pavement.

The Musicians’ Union, once so powerful, seems to have atrophied into virtual non-existence. Managers and landlords are just making the best of it, audiences are being entertained and it would appear that the only people to suffer under this regime are the artists themselves.

We have grown used to the incessant parade of mediocrity thanks to the Simon Cowells of this world, giving the television audience a non-stop succession of cover acts and cover versions. Originality is not the keynote of The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent.

And yet the future Bob Dylans and Neil Youngs and Joni Mitchells and, even, Etta Jameses, of the world are selling their souls in public and onstage every night of the week for the chance to be on a stage – and nothing more.

Where are the managers? Where are the agents? Where are the golden entrepreneurs so beloved of government? Where is fairness?

I have played in bands in pubs in the past and was always warned by the old hands, “Don’t give it away, son! Never play for nothing.” Between four of us we’d maybe get £40. Our best gig ever was £200 between 5. This would be considered a fortune by the hardworking kids of the 21st century.

I have spoken with them and have been impressed by their resilience and resigned attitude. “It’s just the way it is.” Well, yes. It’s certainly the way it used to be for folk singers in folk clubs with a finger in an ear and a hey nonny no, but then who wanted to hear that mindless drivel, which had mercifully passed into a cool dark place where nobody had to listen to it. But music that people wanted to hear like Led Zep and the Beatles and Thin Lizzy, well, you didn’t mind paying to hear that.

Well meaning middle class drivers in the suburbs still display their “Keep Music Live” stickers as they tootle off to the Bridgewater Hall or the Opera House and yet they probably wouldn’t care two hoots if they went out for a drink and listened to the next Adele performing a new song live fully aware of the fact that she wasn’t being paid a bean.

“If it’s good enough someone will pay for it.” No, they won’t. You can download lots of free music, you can go to pubs and clubs and get free music to accompany your pint and your conversation.

It’s a situation that should be addressed, but I really can’t think who by. Pubs and clubs need to pay for a license for more than three musicians. This was a government bye-law that killed off a lot of the music pubs in Manchester. Now, the situation seems to be much worse – they’re ripping off the next generation of talent.

“Put it on the internet” – do a Little Boots. Well, you might as well give it all away on the Internet as give it all away in the pubs and clubs. At least you’ll only have to do one performance which you can record.

And what of the future then? Where will live music be in twenty years’ time? There won’t be any professionals left, they’ll all be part-time unpaid performers. What a shame!

I remember going to see Rory Gallagher in a scruffy little back street club in Belfast – “The Maritime”. It cost me seven and sixpence – that’s 37.5 p these days. It was fantastic. He went on to be one of the greatest blues and rock roll acts of the seventies, playing all over the world on stages with Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison and yet, would he have been able to create a career had he been alive and playing now? I somehow doubt it.

I work with a lot of teenage performers now and I am very aware of how much talent there is out there. These kids spend hours learning to master their instruments, they write fabulous lyrics that can make you laugh in one line and weep at the next. They have so much to offer us in the future, but I fear they will all give up and become accountants and waitresses because there is no way they can earn enough to pay the rent and buy food and drink. This is simply because no-one will pay them. And it’s just not right.

Another thought occurs to me. What ever happened to the pot? It was always a tradition in pubs to pass the pot round. I carried it on many a night. It was deemed an honour. You put in a pound or fifty pence. Any loose change was welcome and it was considered totally acceptable. You listened to a great band and so you put some money in the pot. The money all went to the artists and was generally a supplement to the payment agreed with the landlord. These kids don’t even get a pot!

Landlords and Managers wake up! And do the right thing. Pay for what you get. You don’t mind paying for a bag of crisps or a pint of lager so why not pay for live performance?

- Nigel Hillary

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