London is Living in a Music Bubble
I had many discussions and heard many points of view of music scenes across the USA and Canada while in Washington – many were similar stories, many were not.
I had an interesting discussion with Bruce Fife, the International Vice President of the AFM regarding the London Music Scene.
Many of my colleagues have multiple issues on their table in their cities: symphony issues regarding musicians not being paid properly, not so honest venue owners, promoters who screw bands/artists, unsafe working conditions, free lance bands/artists who play for peanuts willingly, thus driving down wages for ALL musicians, lack of input from local musicians, the list goes on.
What I explained to Bruce was that in London, we have a totally different model then most in North America that I came across. While in most major cities the symphony is the largest factor regarding to how many musicians are employed in one and the amount of theatres that may employee them – London’s symphony was mostly gutted by bad management and as a result was greatly reduced in size. Add to that the fact that London does not have one major performance venue for that format and sadly that side of our music industry has been greatly crippled.
This is what amazed Bruce I think the most was when I explained to him that to the best of my knowledge, and in my many dealings with London and area venue owners that I know personally – venue owners don’t give bands/artists a difficult time nor are they known for shafting bands. I deal with bar owners and have made great friendships with owners in London, St.Thomas, Grand Bend, Woodstock, Brantford and beyond. All these venue owners are very tuned into the musician’s side of the business and treat their bands/artists more than fairly and are easy to work with. The excellent venue owners even throw in beer tix for the band as a little perk to playing their venues. The venues are safe regarding stages, no exposed wires, easy access for load-in and load-out and a musician never has to worry about a lighting truss falling on their heads.
In comparison to other cities I have heard about, we are extremely lucky to play for the people that employee us. Certainly some of us have horror stories about dealing with venue owners over time, but to my knowledge and the back channels that people contact me about gigging – I have seldom come across a venue owner who is known for jacking musicians out of money or having them play in unsafe conditions.
The one issue that greatly concerns me is the rules of being in business is greatly stacked against venue owners who are holding their own despite the numerous obstacles they face.
Personally, I am working on a meeting with someone who can help me address this situation, but that is a process that is going to take a lot of heavy lifting going forward.
London like many cities across North America, is rich in talent across the board. We have a diverse cross section of genres that have been successful on certain levels be it locally, nationally or internationally – and we are unique that this city has a large asset in the experienced musicians who can guide others with their mentorship if we opened the door for them. The foundation of London just like any other city, is the music community themselves. Here in London we have an abundance of talent whether it is cover bands, indie bands/artists, Jazz, Blues, Rock, acoustic acts, Hip-Hop artists, Tribute, Metal, Rockabilly – the list goes on.
Most of these musicians make out well regarding getting paid at a gig, it varies but most are either at scale or slightly above – the ones that take the pounding are the Indie bands when it comes to getting paid for a gig.
Too many times I have talked to friends who are in indie bands and they are walking out the door with $50.00 to split amongst the band after slinging their gear, playing and loading out. Their shows are based on ticket sale proceeds going to the band(s) and hoping like hell that they get enough people out to their show.
Then there is the multi-bill shows of three of four indie bands on a bill and each band is responsible for promotion and selling their share of tickets. Too often I hear that one or two bands did absolutely nothing, and the other one or two bands did all the promoting and selling of tickets resulting in a poor turnout and consequently nobody is making any money.
This is not good business.
As was in evidence when I was at these seminars – when musicians come together, they can have enormous impact on their industry and the government that holds the hammer over it on any of the three levels.
There is organizations and grassroots movements that are in existence for one reason and one reason alone – to help musicians move forward in their careers.
We have the London Arts Council who has numerous programs for musicians to play and helps musician’s apply for grants, Forest City London Music Awards (FCLMA) who sponsors many events for musicians and culminates with the Awards Show and London Music Week in the spring each year, London Musician’s Association that has numerous programs that can create revenue for a band/artist, The London Music Office which holds seminars to educate musicians, Scott Bollert who has the “Battle of The Bands” that gives young bands the chance to play in a large venue and experience what it is like to play live in a concert-like environment, Allstage who gives coverage to bands of all genres through blogs and pictures and event listings, several promoters in the city that put on indie events and have good reputations for being honest with bands/artists, LDN_Reverb which gives coverage to indie bands as well as putting on shows for them and a host of others within the city that are doing great work in the music scene.
London also has an abundance of first-rate recording studios be it Charterhouse, The Sugar Shack, EMAC or the many others in existence in and around London that offer local musicians a top rate facility to cultivate their material.
We have amazing summer Festivals that employee local musicians such as Sun Fest, Wortley Jazz & Blues Festival, Home County Festival, Ribfest and the excellent Rocking Wheel.
So, what is missing?
This is the million-dollar question for as much as London has so much going for it, there is something missing still.
Could we use more venues of different sizes – absolutely, but that would require a population large enough consisting of patrons to keep them solvent and financially viable – and right now there is very little reason for someone to invest in a venue with the restrictive laws in place working against them from day one.
Add to that how many venues have you been in that around 12:30am people start heading for the doors. Yes, there is some exceptions to that be it a Tribute band or a venue has bought a tour package – but for the average bar it is a problem that can’t be ignored.
Should some of the onus be that the musicians bring more to the table when they perform in terms of being better and/or putting on a show? Kind of hard to be an acoustic act and jump around onstage in spandex, but many patrons AND musicians will say off the record that some bands are boring onstage and seem disinterested in how they present themselves visually to a crowd – that quite possibly could be a factor and a reason for low attendance at venues.
Acts like ZED, Dave’s Not Here, Swagger and several others bring some glamour or excessive energy to their shows and seldom lose a crowd – and they look good onstage clothing wise as well to complement the music.
Is playing the across the border from Sarnia or Windsor an issue? Not talking about touring, but how many bands would love to zip down the 402 and play a gig in Port Huron if they could or in Detroit for a night – I know I would love to take my band down there for a weekend but the law prohibits it for musicians going into the states pretty much as they stand for a weekend gig.
How many bands sacrifice themselves to go down to Toronto to put themselves through the “Pay To Play” scenario? Myself I don’t care what pedigree comes with your venue name, I think its belittling for a band/artist to have to foot the bill to play a gig unless your venue says MSG, Scotia Arena or The Staple Centre.
Why bands contribute to this is beyond me except they want “exposure” – and they will be the first ones to make that argument about someone playing for free or at an Open Mic.
Fortunately, that predatory stance of “Pay To Play” hasn’t taken root in London and never should.
So, what other issues hinder local artists/bands in their pursuit of bettering their musical career? You can see what the city has going for it, you can see that you are luckier than most cities that the venue owners are good honest people that employee you. You have access to great recording studios, competent video people who can make your music videos pop, lots of venues to play in with audiences, indie bands can make as much as cover bands if they sell lots of tickets to their shows and put in the required work to achieve that.
Maybe London and area are right where it should be. It’s not terribly difficult to get a gig, yet it certainly is NOT a “Music City” as Graham Henderson of Music Canada likes to often comment – the infrastructure both socially and physically is not here to accomplish that pie in the sky fantasy. We don’t have the population to grease the wheel at every level needed and be honest, Spotify or YouTube views aren’t going to propel you to the next level of your career if you are an indie artist/band.
If you look at the “Cities of Music Network” that are a part of The UNESCO Creative Cities Network, they are mostly in cities that are climate friendly to start with. Some are not but most of them are, and they have the infrastructure to support philharmonic’s (some have 3), some have over 400 venues and the population to sustain them, some have large festivals (Bogota has 60) – but at the end of the day they have the tools in place that can accommodate the music industry on a larger scale.
We have enough problem in the city to have bands play on patios in the summer (pretty much unheard of) let alone a small percentage complaining about the level of volume at Festivals we already have in place – kind of hard to build on those models when you are louder than the required lawn mover levels.
It’s cool that London has landed the Juno’s or the CMA’s make no mistake about it – those were impressive wins by London Tourism and staff – but those are specialty events that doesn’t help the acoustic player in a venue on a Sunday night get ahead.
So is it impossible for musicians to get ahead – No.
Look at some of the musicians who have really made headway like Sean Kelly on guitar who plays for Lee Aaron and has done exceptionally well with his hard work and talent, Sarah Smith who goes across the pond on a regular basis and everywhere in Canada, Doug Varty who has toured the world and still plays internationally. Some local indie bands like Texas Kings have gone out on limited tours and are slowly making a dent – it is possible, but musicians now more than ever must look outside not only the “box” – but their comfort level.
Maybe all you want to do is be a “Weekend Warrior” like me and that’s cool. Maybe you play as much as you want to and are happy with that – awesome.
Maybe you have enough projects in play that are doing well in your music career – that is great news.
Maybe you don’t mind all the hours of practice, slugging gear in and out, doing your show and walking out with only $30.00 in your pocket – money isn’t #1 with everyone.
Yet what if there is something that could really help you, motivate you, move your career forward – what would that be?
Give it some thought and drop me an email at Jim.