As I sit in Dusseldorf Airport awaiting my final Air Berlin flight to take me home, I figure now is as good a time as any to reflect on the past two and a bit months.
Adelaide has been, well, interesting. It was absolutely wonderful for all the obvious reasons; seeing my mum, my brother, and other extended family, hanging out with my friends, enjoying the sun and the hottest summer on record, catching up with everyone I’ve met busking over my time there, just being back in Australia, experiencing my Australian life again, and of course the Fringe Festival. It really was nice being back. It was though, on top of all this, a confirmation to me that I am doing the right thing in moving to the other side of the world. I had somewhat of a realisation that, as good as the Fringe was, as much fun as it is playing to all my many friends and family in Australia, there really is no future for me, at least in the short term, as a musician in Australia. In particular Adelaide.
I find it such a shame that what I once thought of as such an amazing place, somewhere I would have defended to my last breath, somewhere I called home, has effectively made the decision for me to leave. I do think Adelaide is great, and it could be incredible for artists in years to come, but at the moment, it’s drowning. Politics is taking over, and the people in power who have what little compassion and foresight is left, are so far tangled up in bureaucracy and red tape that many of the decisions that are eating away at Adelaide’s cultural bedrock are too far gone.
The problem is not that we don’t have good people trying to do the right thing, it’s that everything in Australia is so over regulated that it makes it impossible to make decisions for the good of the people in any meaningful time frame. Many of the laws and decisions that are made, have such a slow flow on effect, that any negative effects that need to be rectified have time to become ingrained before they can be fixed. Then the myriad barriers to reacting effectively compound the problem resulting in the only remedy being that of making new laws to try and combat the initial problems. The people aren’t broken, the system is.
But I digress. I will probably pick this up again in a later post, and I’m sure some of you have followed the conversations I’ve started with the Adelaide City Council, so I won’t bore you with these challenges here. Rather, I want to talk about something positive; the Fringe Festival.*
Last year’s Fringe Festival was my first. It was scary and nerve-wracking. It was incredibly challenging, and yet incredibly rewarding. Having that experience, no matter how naive I was at the time, also meant that I had some idea of what to expect this year. Which at time was probably the only thing that kept me going.
This year I worked hard. My good friend and co-presenter Mike Williamson and I undertook a project that was ambitious to say the least. It was something that we should have spent a year working on, not a month. It was a project bigger than either of us had even contemplated doing before we started, but once we had, we just had to keep going. I spent pretty much every waking hour for the last six weeks or so organising schedules, filming scenes, editing with Mike, busking to promote the show, organising gigs for promo, emailing media outlets, industry professional and prospective customers, setting up the venue, fixing technical faults, sending out social media updates, liaising with the festival organisers, playing promo spots, and practising for the shows. Everything I did, was for the show. I kept thinking to myself, ‘if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it as well as we possibly can, and it will be a success’. What’s the point otherwise?
And it was worth it. The show was everything I wanted it to be and more. Working with Mike made it so much fun, and easy, and professional. Without him, the show would never have become what it did. We left nothing on the table, and it really was as good as we could have made it.
The best part of it though, was not that we had a product that we were proud of, not that it won an award, not that it may still have life in it, but the people and their response to what we had come up with. It was truly humbling to see so many people each night, to have so many people come and tell us how much they enjoyed it, and why. To have people come up after a show, shake your hand, and just say ‘thank you’, is an amazing feeling. That is why I perform, why I give my music to people, so that family, friends, strangers can come together in a meaningful way and experience some sort of connection.
I have high hopes to take the show around Europe and around the world over the next year or so, and I hope to create those meaningful experiences over and over again. But it is Adelaide, and it’s people, that have started this, and what made it so special up to now. It’s something I haven’t done before, and something I am more than willing to work even harder at to achieve. And, after all that could happen, no matter where my life leads, and no matter the state of the arts in SA, I still look forward to coming back to Adelaide next Fringe, to do it all again.
See you next Fringe Adelaide. It’s been fun.
*There are also a number of glaring problems with the Adelaide Fringe Festival in regards to street performing and it’s relationship with the council. These are not small matters, and I will endeavour to address them in the near future, however in the interest of staying happy, for today I will focus on the good bits!
A few days ago I posted my letter to the Adelaide City Council. After posting it to this blog, and then on my Facebook wall, another busker, and incredibly talented musician, Andy Salvanos, posted it on his Facebook wall. He tagged Stephen Yarwood in the post, the Lord Mayor of Adelaide, and we were lucky enough to get a response.
In writing the initial letter, I attempted to highlight the need for a more effective and transparent dialogue between those in power, in this case the ACC, and the people their laws affect. The initial letter, and the posts that have followed, have started this dialogue. From it has grown a rather interesting conversation between a number of different parties, including musicians, councillors, business owners, and other community members.
In the interest of transparency, Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood has given me his permission to post his response, and I will also include my subsequent reply. If you are interested in the whole conversation, including all 111 responses so far, you will find it here:
Please feel free to jump in on the conversation and voice your opinion. It is an issue that has real consequences on the cultural aspects of Adelaide, and the lives of those who look to be a part of it.
First, here is Stephen’s reply:
Thanks for the heads up on your experience with the council. Being the lord mayor I am interested in what you have to say and want to reassure you I do want to support Buskers!
Amazing timing actually as I was discussing buskers and their permits just today in the Rundle Mall Management Authority meeting. The management of buskers will soon move from council staff to more hands on staff in the Rundle Mall Management Authority. Buskers will be able to communicate directly with a co-ordinator charged with giving the best possible support.
I do want to make the Mall an attractive destination for quality street performers, The performance of one customer service staffer should not define the values of council’s leadership or the strategic directions of the organisation.
But no, we don’t have a buskers action advisory committee, but we have a huge list of local government responsibilities & a small budget…we do the best we can!
I had to say there are some factual errors in this column. The design has nothing to do with creating views towards the hills…that’s an urban myth created by lazy media. Truth is the design has twice as many trees as exists today and in just a few years will have significantly more shade than exists at present.
The design also improves an inadequate drainage system, makes emergency vehicle and bump in truck access far better & includes a LARGER shade structure for performances in Gawler Place!
There is no such thing as instant trees, however just as those before us planted 300,000 city trees that we enjoy today (that they did not get to enjoy) we are doing the same for the future. It’s about having vision and planning for the decades of buskers to come. Double the number of trees because we know shade is critical.
The design doubles the number of seats (so people can sit & enjoy entertainment!) as well as creating more spaces for ‘plug and play’ events, buskers and small retail opportunities.
It’s not finished…
Yes the works are an intrusion, but how often do we say nothing ever changes in Adelaide? Improving streets does not happen overnight but once it is done it will be there for 50 years. A stage for buskers with tress, seats, spaces & better management for decades to come.
Keep a look out for our live music strategy which will be prepared in the next few months for consultation, I would value your input!
Regarding information, truth is there has been massive public consultation as well as constant updates on what is happening in Rundle Mall. We cannot pay for a front page advertisement, but it’s pretty easy to find >http://rundlemall.com.au/ & http://www.rundlemallmasterplan.com/
Yes we can always do better, but I think it’s important to get the facts right so I hope you don’t mind the feedback.
I know you want to busk today, but I also hope you want your Lord Mayor to be thinking about the future of busking. I reckon our future looks brighter & shadier. Have some patience & stick with me…
Lord Mayor of Adelaide
And now, here is my subsequent reply:
Thank you very much for your reply. It is reassuring that you have taken the time out to enter into a conversation with us.
Firstly, we would welcome the placement of a co-ordinator. It has worked in many other settings I have experienced, however it needs to be well implemented. Whoever is appointed needs to be someone who can facilitate a two way communication, not just be there to make sure we are following the rules!
Secondly, I would like to apologise for any errors I made in regards to the final plans for the mall. I was attempting to comment on the state of the mall as it is currently, and, assumed a few things that I shouldn’t have, albeit things that I have heard in the media and the like. However, as Andy Salvanos has already mentioned in the Facebook thread, the real problem, from our point of view, is the lack of communication in recent times. Buskers have been a large part of the mall for a long time now, and over the past few months, or more, it’s seemed as though the council and mall management haven’t even noticed we’ve been there.
I think an example of this is the fact that the only reason you read what I wrote is because Andy tagged you in his Facebook post. I’m not blaming you, but obviously the email I sent to the Council was not forwarded on to the right people. There has been a break down in communication and it has left the majority of us professional buskers wondering where to go.
Furthermore, I read through the pages you linked to in your email about the mall development and the master plan. Did you notice that the word ‘busker’ was only mentioned once in the entire article, and that was in a passing sentence within a list of people who could use the mall. That was all. It is all well and good to point to a website with information and refer to it as community consultation, however it is essentially just a list of wishes and vague timelines, with no mention of policy with regards to how these cultural and community changes are supposed to unfold.
You mentioned that I had some of my facts wrong, for which I have apologised, however I think there are a number of things you have confused as well. I have already mentioned in the Facebook thread that the north shade is only effective late in the afternoon, and if we are to follow the busking guidelines we must perform in full sun until then. And it means the extra seats are unusable until the shade comes over. You are correct in saying that change takes time and that the shade will come, but it would have been beneficial to look at other ways of creating shade throughout the process. The people who I’ve mentioned who are no longer able to perform in the mall, due to the sun, are not just kids trying to make pocket money on the weekend. They are professional musicians, performers, and entertainers, some of whom have families, mortgages, and other financial commitments. Yes, I understand you have limited budget and many responsibilities, but the reason I wanted to raise this issue is so that the Council realises this is not a trivial matter.
I have been to so many cities where busking is celebrated and nurtured, and has brought an incredibly rich culture to the streets. I would love for that to be the case here again, and I would love for that to be soon, but without mutual goals it’s impossible. Busking is an integral part of Adelaide, and Rundle Mall in particular, and what we need as buskers, members of council, and the public, is to continue this open and transparent dialogue that has started through this article and your response.
Thank you again for taking the time to respond, and I hope you continue to do so, as it is incredibly important to us as street performers. Unfortunately I won’t be here to have any input into your music strategy as I now live in Berlin, and leave in 2 weeks, however I am more than happy to respond to any questions you have about my experiences here or anywhere else. If you would ever like to know about how street performing works elsewhere in the world I would be more than happy to help out. I do ask in regards to Adelaide though, that you seek the opinions of other professional buskers or musicians who may still be here. People like Andy Salvanos, Gypsy Kat, Oscar Asbanu, Skyla Morgan, Kaurna Cronin, Lindsay Buckland, Peter Hacquoil. The list goes on.
Thanks for your time, and I hope we can keep the dialogue open.
One last thing. Would it be ok if I post this conversation on my blog, as I did my original letter. I think it will lead to an open discussion, which in my eyes can only be a good thing.
A few weeks ago I was told by the Adelaide City Council there was no one I could possibly talk to about issues facing street performers within the CBD. I was told however, that if I sent an email to the Council, it would be forwarded to the correct people, and I would get a response. I sent the following letter to the council a bit over a week ago.
I haven’t heard back.*
Dear Adelaide City Council,
My name is Geordie Little, and I am a professional musician and street performer. I am writing to raise my concerns over a number of issues regarding street performers and street art in Adelaide.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at the Adelaide City Council Office buying my permit to busk within the city. I was charged the full monthly fee for just three weeks until the Fringe started, as the council still didn’t know what was happening during the festival in regards to permits. After paying for the permit, I asked the lady who was serving me whether there was anyone I could speak with about some of the challenges facing buskers in the Mall at the moment. I asked if there was any possibility that some of the regular professional street performers could attend any form of council planning meetings or the like in order to raise our opinions and concerns with performing within the city. I was told, quite matter-of-factly, ‘no disrespect to you, but we provide you with an area to play; either you buy a permit and put up with what we decide, or you don’t play’.
To be honest, I did not expect this response, and at the time I didn’t really know what to say, however thinking about it since, I have realised her response is the exact reason we, as street performers, are struggling with the current conditions.
Before the Mall upgrades started, there was talk of developing Adelaide into the street performance capital of Australia. This idea was welcomed by street performers and had the potential, along with the ‘Renew Adelaide’ initiatives, small venue licensing, and mobile food van legislation, to rejuvenate Adelaide and foster a thriving, culturally rich and artistic community. I, and many of the people I meet every day, am of the strong opinion that a thriving street art culture is not only beneficial, but can be used as a foundation for councils to build and nurture successful community events such as the upcoming Fringe Festival. It’s more than that though. Street art is a way of marketing a city, a way to attract people to a place through the arts and culture, a way to connect with the youth, and an avenue for tourism. Just today I signed a release form for a photographer from Tourism SA who wanted to photograph me playing to promote the city and the state. Unfortunately though, it seems the council doesn’t see it this way, and has all but abandoned its plans to nurture any form of street culture.
Regardless of whether the current upgrades were necessary or not, the construction process in Rundle Mall has essentially made it impossible for buskers to make a living. The biggest problem is the fact that there has been no communication as to where and when we can play, or how long the disruptions may last. And, although possible performance space is limited, buskers have not been informed about other organised events that have been scheduled, leaving us to arrive in the Mall some days to find we have nowhere to play anyway. I applied for a permit to busk in Melbourne about a year ago, and have played there for a total of five days since, and yet I received an email today detailing the exact date and times that I won’t be able to busk at Southbank next week due to a community event.
This lack of communication and consultation, has led to what is, in my opinion, an illogical and impractical Mall upgrade. This is not to say we shouldn’t upgrade the mall, however any upgrade should enhance the community environment, not detract from it. The idea to remove any obstructions from the central line in order to see the hills** may sound good on paper, however it means removing all shade. On hot days, and rainy days for that matter, the mall has been rendered essentially unusable. In the hottest country in the world, with the highest rate of skin cancer incidence, the concept to remove all shade, trees included, should have been shut down at the first stage of planning. And it would have been, had effective community consultation taken place. It means people like face-painters or other children’s entertainers, let alone the rest of us, can no longer operate in the mall, as they cannot, and should not, allow children to sit in the sun for extended periods of time.
Adelaide could be great. We have so many opportunities to be leaders in youth and other arts. We host the second largest arts festival in the world, and every year we are voted in the top five most liveable cities in the world. We have so many amazing people trying to invigorate the city through various cultural projects. We have passed laws that allow small venues to thrive, and councils and government seem to possess a forward thinking approach to change. However that ability to be great, that will to be seen as an innovator, needs to be driven in the right direction. It must be guided by consultation with the people the changes actually affect, and fuelled by open and transparent communication. Otherwise, things like the Mall upgrade happen. It leaves good people in difficult situations, in some cases forcing them to leave this great city, because projects or initiatives weren’t thought through effectively. This city will thrive, but only if councils and governments make changes because they are necessary, or because they will enhance the community.
To be honest, any changes that are made from now on, for better or worse, won’t affect me. I love Adelaide, and I will always come back, but I have been forced to move overseas in order to follow my passion, as it has become impossible for me to make a living as an acoustic guitarist here. Adelaide is home to some world class street performers, and some of the best musicians I have seen anywhere, and I hope, more than anything, that Adelaide realises, that unless they want that talent to leave, something needs to change. The people who have the power to make changes need to consult those the changes will affect, before this great city is ruined under this misguided notion of ‘taking Adelaide into the future’. Change is good, but you need to change the right things. You’ve already lost me, but please, for the love of Adelaide, don’t lose the rest of the incredible talent that makes this city so great.
*Update as of 10/02/14 at 9pm. Having posted this on Facebook an hour or so ago, and it being re-posted by other buskers, I have since received a response from Stephen Yarwood, the Lord Mayor of Adelaide. I would like to thank him for his time and willingness to start a conversation.
** It has come to my attention that the reason for the removal of everything from the centre line was not in order to see the hills, as the media has reported it, but rather for a number of other reasons; including drainage and vehicle access.
I want to raise a question. I don’t claim to have all the answers, nor am I quite sure anyone else does just yet either. It is the question of permits within the busking or street performing arena. It is something that has been tried and tested in myriad formats in cities all over the world, in some cases to positive effect, others not so, but it is also something I think is worth looking at under some form of scholarly or academic spotlight, in order to determine just how effective it can be.
I know many buskers will not agree with me, and will argue that it is their right to play wherever and whenever they want, and will even go so far as to deliberately stir up the council or police just to make their point. Over my last couple of years taking an interest in the field, I have seen videos of buskers setting up next to ‘No Buskers’ signs and watched buskers taking on the authorities. On the flip side I have seen first hand police confiscating gear and telling people to move on and heard stories of bands being surrounded by police and told that if they come back to play they will be deported.
Although I see myself as a busker, and identify myself as such, I do think that permit systems, and selective permit systems at that, are needed in large cities, festival settings, and even smaller council areas. And, although I may risk a backlash from some die hard busking rights advocates, I believe a selective permit system will, perhaps only in the long run, act to enhance the lives, and careers, of buskers. Serious buskers that is.
The following points are obviously no more than suggestions as to why I think some form of organised permit system may work. I don’t claim to have any answers as to the exact outcomes or even how one may go about implementing the suggestions. It is simply a topic I want to bring up for discussion, and I welcome feedback from buskers, decision makers, and the public alike. The topic of buskers and their well-being does not just effect them and those policing it, but rather the community as a whole. I am of the strong opinion that the topic of busking needs to be brought into the public view in order for effective discussion and change.
Firstly, and possibly most obviously, a selective permit system, that is one that includes an audition or similar process, immediately rules out those that can’t play or do not consider themselves serious performers. One of the largest problems facing buskers and street performers in my experience is the public’s perception of us as nothing more than just that, buskers. We are not seen as musicians, or performers, but rather simply as people waiting for money. There seems to be a somewhat misguided expectation that all buskers simply want people to give them money. A misconception physically manifested in the number of passersby inadvertently dispensing coins as they walk by for no other reason than locational convenience.
This perception is obviously not unfounded, fostered through the sheer number of children and, let’s say, ‘ill-committed’ buskers that line the streets. When the bad outweigh the good, and there exists a tendency to give through pity or expectation as opposed to enjoyment or sincerity, it nurtures an environment counter to the will of those performing. It is my belief, that if the public expectation were that those playing in community areas were professionals, working for a living through entertaining, the general populace would slowly shift to rewarding talent and creativity, rather than for merely looking cute while being forced by an over bearing mother to try and play an instrument without having taken any lessons. In a perfect world, a well thought out permit system could act as the catalyst in changing the perceived value of buskers within a society.
Unfortunately though, the idea of auditioning does present some problems, such as personal bias in selection criteria, the inherent ‘what is good art?’ argument, and of course backlash from those not so lucky as to secure a permit. However I think if councils were able to set up an objective panel of industry professionals, or initiate a set of guidelines as to what constitutes best practice, the concept could have positive effects. Problematic in it’s implementation, yes, but also, in my mind, worth a look.
Another point that I think many buskers over look is the security a permit system gives them. As soon as one mentions any form of permit, many buskers I meet instantly complain about how it takes away their freedoms, gives too much power to the authorities, and lets those with a vested interest in the areas affected to shut them down. What they fail to realise is that a permit system also gives the performer something to back them up. If a performer stays within the guidelines established through the permit system, then they have every right to continue doing what they’re doing. If a shop, member of the public, or another busker or spruker decides to give trouble, then a permit is the performers legal way of stating their position. The existence of a permit isn’t the problem. I think the real challenge, is how that permit is formulated. It needs to be designed through communication between authorities, patrons, public, and performers alike. It needs to be explicit, but fair, and, in conjunction with a selective audition process, needs to emphasise the importance of not only good performance, but a quality relationship between traders and artists.
Another thing a permit system including a selection process does, is legitimises and legalises busking and street performing as a profession. One advantage that could flow from this, is that if the general population sees street performing as a legitimate profession, they will start to treat it as such, rewarding creativity and talent, and in some cases even seeking out expertise. I dare say it could lead to making the street performing, and in particular street music scene, a respectable avenue to selection for bookers, promoters, event coordinators and the like, more so than it is now.
The second advantage that comes from the legalisation and legitimisation of a profession, which may not immediately seem like an advantage to street performers, is that it allows it to be taxed more effectively. As soon as there are artists registering as a professional street performer, the government can track it and tax performers more efficiently. Where it becomes an advantage for the performer, is in the fact that this in turn allows the performers some legal rights. If the performers are seen as legitimate members of the social public, making a taxable living from entertaining patrons in places of public congregation, such as shopping malls, community events, and tourist destinations, then they should be consulted in building development processes, the creation of applicable laws, and the passing of council bills. It would also open up the possibility of compensation in circumstances when it is not possible to use a public space due to construction, rezoning, or scheduled community events.
One obvious current example is the upgrade of Rundle Mall in Adelaide at the moment. There was no public or private consultation with any form of street performers in the planning of the current upgrade, and has been no allowance given in the rules or regulations for buskers during the building process. If the street performing was better regulated, and as such musicians were treated as legitimate stakeholders in both the planning and construction processes, the handful of artists who work as professional street performers in Adelaide, wouldn’t have to struggle to simply put food on the table.
Now, I know that many people wouldn’t see it as a problem that street performers have to struggle through construction and development projects, however that stems, in large, from the culture surrounding buskers. If people see them as a nuisance, then it may be seen as a good thing that they be forced out of an area. But, if a culture of quality entertainers is nurtured, those public spaces and the talented performers that work them, can be used by councils and governments to promote areas as tourist attractions and bring in more money. The quality of buskers can be utilised in the marketing and publicity of cities. Small busking or arts festivals can be curated, solely based around the outdoor arts - you only have to look at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to see how that might benefit a town economically. Additionally, creating spaces that foster good street performers and markets them in a way that promotes quality entertainment, has the ability to create professional busking circuits, similar to that in the theatre world or the Fringe Festivals around the Americas. Some incredible performers and entertainers work on the streets, and a profitable circuit will see the best acts from around the world putting those places on their maps.
Maybe I’m mistaken, or just grossly misinformed, but in my opinion a well executed and appropriately regulated selective permit system has the ability to turn the entire concept of busking from a little girl with pigtails who can’t play the violin but has a cute smile, to a world class act bringing people to public areas simply to be entertained. And to me, that sounds like something worth pursuing.
Update 23/01/2014: It has come to my attention that my ramblings throughout this post were a little locationally biased. I have realised that my observations were solely based on busking in Adelaide, where there is essentially only one area in which to perform. In a place such as Berlin, where there are countless areas that are profitable to play (both economically and culturally), and seems to, at least in my experience, regulate itself, a permit system such as the one I described above is unnecessary.
After a couple of years as a professional musician, and a number of years studying music before that, I understandably have a lot of friends who also call themselves musicians. Some have been gigging and recording professionally for longer than I’ve been alive, some are just starting out at conservatories or schools, and some simply play in hobby bands or DJ at a local bar once a month. But whatever their experience or commitment to their trade, it seems every musician has an opinion on the ‘music industry’. It seems that every day in my Facebook feed, what seems to have become the western world’s primary source of intellectual dissemination, philosophy, and collective knowledge, another two, three, seven links to articles about the state of the music business are posted.
I try to read as many of these articles as possible. Not because they are all correct, or relevant, or well written - when people write things like ‘labels are shit’, or ‘how are the big four gonna fuck us this time?’, it somehow lacks a poetic eloquence, undermining the obviously intellectual argument they are trying to get across. I read them, rather, in order to know what my peers, colleagues, competitors, and friends, are thinking, how they are relating to one another, reacting to the changing environment around us.
The most recent article I read was from a blog that shall remain nameless. It was an interesting article, reasonably well written, albeit overly biased, that got, for the main part, torn to pieces in the comments. Regardless of what the article said, at the bottom of each page, the site was advertising for contributors to the music section of the site. I was interested. I clicked on the link and it told me that in order to apply I had to write a piece about music and submit it. It sounded good, so I opened a new notepad document and wrote out my heading.
Then I had a look at the site to see what they might be looking for.
'The top 25 Muse Songs of all time', '7 signs that Miley Cyrus is out of control', '30 greatest X-Factor winners in history'…
So after realising my style of writing, my commitment to becoming a real musician, and my personal level of self respect, didn’t really fit with the mission statement of the high journalism and social commentary displayed on the site, I decided to write, not an application piece, but my own article, in my own version of their style. So here goes.
5 reasons why most of what I see posted about music on Facebook is irrelevant.
1. The Entertainment Industry is separate from the Music Industry.
Every day someone posts an article, or two, whether it be a letter from a high profile independent artist or a musicians rights advocate, or a blogger venting their angers on their own small indie site, yelling and screaming about how the Big Four are ruining the Music Industry, putting out clone after talentless clone, chasing fame and money, and riding their successes to the ground, squeezing every last cent until the stone is dry, before finding a new ball of putty to pick up where the others left off and do it all again. They all say the same thing. In different words and with different levels of resentment. But the underlying message is always the same. That the people in charge of the ‘Music Industry’ are ruining the arts.
Now I am the first to put my hand up and say that I’m guilty of writing some of these articles too, hell, this may even be one. I don’t know many musicians that don’t, at the very least, chat about the discrepancies between big business and small struggling artists. But I think many of us are missing the point.
It is fine to hate the big labels and their continuous production lines, churning out photo-shopped, auto-tuned girls, sexed up before their age, wearing skimpy outfits and dancing provocatively, or toned-up, meat-head guys with just enough brooding emotion to make women think they could change them. But the people who call themselves musicians, or artists, who then complain that it’s always the same people getting signed to big labels, even though there are so many more talented artists out there that deserve it - they’re missing the point.
The entertainment industry, and the big four labels that run it, are not searching for talented musicians and artists. They are looking for people they can mould into entertainers. People don’t go to Justin Bieber concerts, and I use that term lightly, for the lyrics. Or the music for that matter. They go to Bieber concerts because; 1. they are pre-teen girls, their friends are going, and they don’t know what music is, 2. because the show is big, and expensive, and probably incredibly impressive, and 3. because he’s famous, has a lot of money, and he’s friends with Usher. The people on these labels are not musicians, they are entertainers.
Has anyone ever put on a Black Eyed Peas tune and said, ‘oh you have to listen to this, Fergie just knows exactly what I’m going through’, or played Poker Face to a friend and said, ‘man check this out, the lyrics changed my life’. If you do just want to be famous, follow to the letter what the labels want you to do, make a lot of money, and be chased by paparazzi for the rest of your life, or at least until they dispose of you, then by all means go on reality TV, join the X-Factor, or send in audition tapes to Sony, BMG, EMI, or Universal. But, if you call yourself a musician, practising your art for the love of it, for the art of it, for the creation of it, then don’t get angry when they choose a hot girl with big tits willing to do whatever it takes to get famous instead of you. That’s what they do. I’m not saying the people signed to big labels aren’t talented or good at what they do, but the entertainment industry is different to the music industry, and it’s never going to change.
2. The Music Industry is just that, an Industry.
Over the past decade, or longer, there have been myriad articles, opinion pieces, letters, and academic journals dedicated to the changing face of the music industry. How the digital revolution has brought so many advancements in creation, production and distribution, but with it changed the marketing and sales models for everyone the world over. For the most part there has been a huge movement of musicians, and artists in general, complaining that the current distribution and sales models that have been thrust upon us are detrimental, and, for the majority of us, not economically feasible. I have read so many articles from musicians explaining how Spotify is ripping them off (they pay around $0.008 per track), saying that people don’t want to pay for music anymore, that somehow, about 10 years ago, the perceived price of an album went from around $20 to $0, practically over night.
These things are all true, but again people are missing the point. The fact is, it just doesn’t matter. By all means, know the changes, understand the changes, talk about the changes, but don’t waste your breath complaining about them.
Every industry changes. Countless professions have fallen by the wayside. Even those that have stood the test of time are largely unrecognisable from say a hundred, fifty, even ten years ago. The automotive industry, as one example, is constantly culling workers, opting instead for automated production lines operated by computers. In the same vein, there’s currently no huge competition in the horse and cart market. I’m sure those specialising in the manufacture of asbestos, the ones printing Encyclopaedias, milk men, ice couriers, bag sewers, kerosene boiler repairers, night carters, type setters, telegraph and switchboard operators, rag and bone men, street lighters, and manure collectors were all a little upset when their jobs became obsolete.
The internet revolution is the latest technological advancement to change the world. It has opened up a world of possibilities in all facets of the music industry, every industry. It has enabled musicians the world over, not only the ability to create music, but to share it instantaneously with people living on the other side of the globe. I challenge any musician, no matter how experienced they might be, not to be able to recall some way in which technological advancements over the last decade, not least the internet, have led to a personal breakthrough, be it creatively, professionally, artistically, or in any other way.
I find it somewhat self indulgent, if not backward, to then turn around and say that the internet, or particular facets of it, are ruining the music industry. To me, a sort of ‘biting the hand that feeds you’ type approach to technology, kind of seems a little counter intuitive.
3. No-one has a right to simply make a living as an Artist.
It seems that the digital revolution has almost all but abolished any barriers to entry within the field of music. Anyone can download production software and start creating their own melodies or crafting their own beats. Advancements in recording software means that every man and his dog can record themselves and share it instantly with friends, family, and strangers. This proliferation of content creators, seems to have brought with it a proliferation of egos. Sure there are people who use the technology for themselves, create for the fun of it, share it to whoever wants to listen. But somehow the ease of production and dissemination has resulted in a misguided expectation that one should be heard.
Far too often people get angry that they are being hard done by, making no sales, being turned down for gigs, not being offered the breakthroughs they feel they deserve. Just because you have made a sound cloud account and a few people have told you your music is God’s gift to the world, doesn’t mean you have any right to make a living from doing nothing. Being a musician, a professional musician, that is to make all one’s money from playing, writing, or creating music, is hard work. No one has the right to simply make a few tunes and live from it.
People don’t just become doctors, teachers aren’t pulled off the street and thrown into classrooms, plumbers are not just guys that happen to have a wrench lying around in the back of their car. In order to do anything, become good at anything, to get to a point in your chosen profession at which your skills are worth something, takes time, takes effort, and takes a lot of hard work. Music is no different. Just because you may have written a song that your mother told you sounds just as good as that Ed Sheeren guy on the radio, doesn’t make you an artist. And, just because you call yourself an artist, doesn’t mean anyone has any obligation to pay for your art either.
If you are serious, and you are willing to give everything to succeed at something you feel passionate about, in any field, you need to find a way to do it. If your field happens to be music, it is no longer enough to record a song, put it online, make a YouTube video, and ride that tune all the way to the bank. The rules have changed. You need to find a product people want. If you want to be on a big label and create pop music for the masses, so be it, good luck to you. If staying true to yourself or your art rules that option out, then you need to find a way to make it work. There is no point creating something you think is perfect and then getting upset because you don’t make any money from it. The public can, and will, download it for free. That’s just where we are as a society now. You need to be creative, think bigger, work harder.
4. You are not alone, but you might be.
Musicians, just like any other profession, group, union, community, all face the same challenges. We are all in the same industry, with its unpredictability and fickle survival of the fittest, or in some cases the luckiest, mentality. But, just because your peers and colleagues may respect you as an artist doesn’t mean that every opinion you have on the matter will be agreed with. Hell, I’m pretty sure there will be some people who read this who think I’m an idiot. But that’s the nature of the beast. It’s just part of being an artist.
Part of bringing up opinions, raising issues that you believe in, or simply bringing awareness to a topic, means opening up a can of worms, that, for the most part, may be rejected, sometimes completely. Any time you challenge the way people think on a certain topic, you open yourself up to criticism and personal attacks. As a musician you may write an article about musicians rights, hounding big labels and common practise, and get slammed for it. Or, you could back big business and be applauded.
There is more than one side to any argument, be it in politics, sport, personal affairs, or, yes, music. If you post an article, or a comment, or any other message stating your position on a topic, then be prepared to back it up, intellectually, intelligently, and if at all possible humourously (although the first two will do). People will respect you for it, even if they disagree, and they will back you up. There is a sense of safety, a sense of comfort, in numbers. But, if you start to get defensive and come across as the lesser person, you will only sound uneducated and undermine the message you are trying to address, and the numbers will start to slowly drift away.
5. Bitterness does not bring Sympathy.
Finally, even if you have been hard done by, even if you deserve to be famous, even if you are the best guitarist, singer, kazooist in the world, being bitter about not being where you think you should be will not get you there. I say this for two reasons; 1. most musicians are in the same boat and won’t feel any more sorry for you than they do themselves, and 2. the majority of people who aren’t musicians don’t really care anyway. I have read too many articles being torn to pieces by people thinking music should be played as hobby, how no one should be allowed to be an artist for a living. The number of people out there who think musicians should go out and get a real job is astounding. Obviously there are people who respect, treasure, and nurture the arts, in all forms, if there wasn’t I wouldn’t be writing this article. But, again, these people won’t respect you any more if you are bitter.
The only advice I have is this; if it is too hard, if you just can’t take it any more, then stop. Easy. Go find a job doing anything else, with a constant pay cheque, and be happy. If you, like me, know that is not an option, then just keep going. Take the opportunities when they come, keep striving to be the best you can, keep on thinking, and creating, and being the person you want to be. Life’s too short to be bitter, angry, or depressed. If you want something bad enough then find a way to make it happen. If it doesn’t work, think up a new way to try it. But whatever you choose, don’t continue doing something you don’t enjoy and then complain about it - it just doesn’t make sense.
Today I find myself back in Malaga. This time though I’m just sitting at the airport waiting to check in for my flight to Zurich, and then on to Berlin. After four and a half weeks here on the south coast of Spain, I am finally heading home to see my beautiful girlfriend, my friends, my new apartment, in which I’ve spent all of about three weeks since we moved in, and to get back to work. I won’t be home long, I travel back to the UK to build an amp in just over a week, before touring around Germany at the end of November, and then flying back to Australia to be with family for Christmas and to play in the sun once more. But for now, I cannot wait to get back to wonderful Berlin and get stuck into some rehearsals, writing, and recording. And hopefully I can even brave the cold and get in a bit of busking.
Having finished building my guitar on Thursday, I’ve had a few days to relax and reflect on the last four weeks. And, although the whole thing is somewhat of a blur, it has, without a doubt, been four of the most rewarding weeks of my life. Not only did I make a bunch of new friends and a few good contacts, learn how to use an array of different tools and to work with wood, and of course build a new eight string guitar, but I learnt so much about my instrument, my music, and myself, both as a musician and a person.
It may sound a little self indulgent, but the whole experience was something of a mental, almost spiritual, journey. From knowing not even the slightest thing about the process of guitar building, to what was eventually the birth of an instrument perfectly designed and developed to suit my style of music, hand crafted into what I had envisaged from the start. Thanks to Stephen, an Englishman living in Spain, and Pablo, a Spaniard living in England, both highly respected guitar makers with an ever growing list of high profile clients in their books, I’ve managed to make something that just, well, fits. It is a guitar that has grown out of my style, my techniques, and my approach to music, and yet it will allow me to continue to adapt and evolve as a musician, both in composition and performance.
It is however, so much harder to play than I thought it would be. Over the last couple of years doing nothing but playing, it seems my hands have come to know the ins and outs of my instrument without me thinking about it. An extra two strings kind of throws a spanner in the works. One small draw back of this extra difficulty, other than it going to take a while to feel completely comfortable switching between the two guitars, is that no one could play my guitar at the end of course concert. Except me. Or so I was told. So, while the other guitars were played by two of the best professional guitarists I’ve had the pleasure to watch in such an intimate setting, one classical, one flamenco, I had one day to write a tune on an instrument I can’t yet play and perform it in front of about fifty people in a candle lit room of an old castle. And then again at a bar on a beach later in the night, after about five or six beers, and a few wines, and in front of maybe a hundred or so partying spaniards. I don’t get nervous at gigs any more, but I was definitely reminded what butterflies feel like.
All in all though, the playing turned out to be so much fun, and the guitar is perfect. And, over the next six or so months, the wood will continue to settle, the tone will develop further, and the guitar will continue to come into its own. I guess my point in writing this, as well as bragging a little bit about my new baby, is to say that if you are a musician, and you need a new instrument, start looking for a course to learn to build it. Especially if you are a guitarist. It is an amazing experience, and, although it may be expensive, if you find a good course like I did, you will end up with a uniquely personalised instrument, that both looks and sounds amazing. Now I’m just looking forward to going back and doing it all over again in a couple of years to build a harp guitar. I think I need to earn some more money!
Well, after spending three days exploring the streets of Málaga, and attempting to rediscover my outback feet on the hot sandy beaches of Spain’s fourth largest and southern most city, I have made it to La Herradura. While I sit here on the balcony of my home away from home for the next month, looking out over what is a sleepy fishing village built on the hills surrounding a horseshoe ocean bay, I am enjoying the last relaxing day of doing nothing before beginning an intensive four week course in building my own guitar.
Before I made the journey from what is fast becoming a cold and wet Berlin, I really didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, I was so busy writing and recording for my new guitar duo project, moving house, and starting to organise next years Adelaide Fringe production, that it didn’t really occur to me what I was about to undertake until I left. I was so unorganised that, realising I didn’t even know how to say hello, or thank you, in Spanish, I decided to order a Spanish phrase book and a lonely planet guide just a few days before I left. Naturally, with this level of forward thinking, the books will be waiting for me at my apartment back in Berlin when I get back from my adventure, leaving me to stumble along for the next month with the one phrase I did bother to learn, dos cerveza porfevor (luckily for me, when you order a beer here you also get a plate of tapas to go with it, so I at least won’t go hungry or thirsty).
But even being so disorganised, I have so much to look forward to. Even in the now twenty four hours since I arrived here, I realise just how much I am going to learn, how much I am going to experience, just being in this village, in this country. It is glaringly obvious, just from the few people that I’ve met, just how integral the guitar is in Spanish culture. While I was mingling with expats and spaniards alike at a party last night, watching people improvising flamenco duets, while the audience clapped along in perfect Spanish rhythms, I realised that music, guitar, flamenco, is a way of life here. Everyone spoke of the music, and of the instrument, with such great respect and pride. It is something I have never experienced before, and I feel incredibly honoured and privileged to be submersed in this culture for the coming month.
I will be spending nine hours a day, five days a week, for the next four weeks, in a workshop with five other students learning about my instrument, crafting from nothing my own eight string flamenco guitar. It is something I have been looking forward to for a while, but now that I am here, I realise just how special it will be, after those four intense and tiring weeks, to be able to play an instrument that I have crafted with my own hands, to know every little thing about my instrument inside out. It is going to be a very steep learning curve, and it is going to be exhausting, but I know that it is going to be one of the most rewarding things I have done up until now, and I am looking forward to every minute.