“One minute you’re being rimmed on the floor of a five-star hotel, the next you can’t afford the bus fare home and it’s raining.”
Not my words, the words of a semi-established alternative rock musician who shall remain nameless, at least until the NME Big Read interview comes out in a few weeks. But a more heartbreaking, poetic and poignant picture of the plight of the struggling new rock band is difficult to imagine. The borrowed fantasy versus the brutal reality. An oh-too-brief moment of high-end sphinctal ecstasy juxtaposed with the long, cold slog of dreary, damp breadline living. A gilded night to be devoutly wished, perhaps, but steeped in ironic existential frustration at the fleetingness of shallow ephemeral fulfillment as you’re sat, arse soggy inside and out, on a lonely N29.
We’re reminded often of the financial hardships of starting a new band. How it’s about as easy to make money from selling music as it is from a strip troupe called The Full Michael Gove. How putting music on streaming services is like mining Bitcoin – it costs more in time, hassle and electricity than it’ll ever be worth. And how it’s only the privileged few that can visit the amp shop of mum and dad who have any chance of surviving for more than a couple of months without deciding to become a White Stripes-style blues rock duo, purely so they can eat the bassist.
“Only the privileged few bands have any chance of surviving for more than a couple of months without deciding to become a White Stripes-style blues rock duo, purely so they can eat the bassist”
We’ve also had a few reminders recently that the top end of the musical spectrum is a financial swamp too. Just this month it was revealed that both Deep Purple and Rita Ora had fallen foul of crooked accountants syphoning millions from their incomes. Now, I’m sure there are many honest and respectable music industry accountancy firms, but after James Arthur, The Charlatans, Suede, Rihanna, Sting, Elton, Billy Joel and who-knows-how-many others have brought lawsuits against their book-keepers over the decades, I can’t be the only one who imagines they’re all run from the same internet cafe by a bloke with 12,000 companies registered in a Dagenham lock-up.
But now, arguably, the cruelest mine in the music industry’s financial minefield has gone off. You might have noticed acts posting messages about the collapse of PledgeMusic, the crowd-funding platform which stopped paying artists their collected donations last year and is now reported to be going bankrupt after an email was leaked alleging that the company had no staff and was offering the company for sale “free from any liabilities” (i.e. the buyer wouldn’t have to pay back any of the bands). With anywhere between $1million and $3 million still owed to acts – electro-industrialists ohGR are owed $100,000, Queensryche more than $70,000 – there’s talk of this being the Fyre Festival of crowdfunding, minus the amusing blowjob memes.
Most acts still hope, by hook or by crook, to get records finished and honour the pledges made to the fans that have supported them, at sometimes ruinous cost to themselves. What’s saddest though is that these are the real bedrock acts of the British music world. The under-the-radar newcomers who’ve built a fanbase from the ground up with no label or media hype behind them. The reunion bands using the possibilities of the internet to test the waters of a new album, and finding them surprisingly welcoming. The warhorses battling on long after the chart hits, radio rotations and awards dried up, but boasting enough of a faithful following to keep them afloat, even if they have to finish their gigs at a babysitter-friendly hour these days. The acts that can least afford to be screwed over, basically, the musical equivalent of the lovelorn pensioner who signed over their house to a swarthy army general on Match.com, who seemed perfect apart from his spelling.
An enlightening post from songwriter Liam Frost laid out PledgeMusic’s worryingly abusable payment methods. One third of the money would arrive once the project was completely funded, another third when it was released digitally and the final third once all pledges were completed. This might have been designed to ensure the artist fulfilled their promises to their fans, but it also ensures that the act would largely have to fund recording costs, manufacturing outlays and other substantial expenses upfront themselves, safe in the knowledge that their targets had been reached and future payments were assured. So large loans would have been hurriedly arranged, houses remortgaged, savings set aside for a funky day decimated. When those payments didn’t come it wasn’t like Les McQueen turning up at a Creme Brulee gig in his full ‘70s stage cape and being told he can’t play ‘Voodoo Lady’. This was serious investment, hope and – crucially – the trust of fans lost. And in the age of crowdfunding trust, for band and platform alike, is both fragile and paramount. No-one’s going to be PayPal-ing PonziMusic twice.
Frost’s post explains how he has managed to strike a deal to have his PledgeMusic (non-)funded album distributed via Kobalt/AWAL, but not without a faith-shaking amount of trauma. “There have been times in recent months that I’ve felt like jacking music in altogether, and I’ve spent nights awake wondering how all of this will work out. I’m mentally spent,” he concludes, “but I won’t let it beat me.” It’s a sentiment being repeated across the less heralded world of music this week, sometimes in anger, sometimes despair. Let’s hope everyone can be more Frost.