As I stood in the Bowery, waiting for Lindi Ortega, it occurred to me that we are now in an era of not really being prepared to pay for music anymore.
Even young people I’ve met who intend to make music their career are not immune to this. They don't see why they should pay *just* to listen to music, and who can blame them? Are the days of making a living from just selling your recorded music gone? If they are, that just leaves live shows as the only real way to make your audience shell out cash, and even then, as with tonight’s free Lindi Ortega gig, or our home-grown Tramlines festival, we often seem to be expecting ‘someone else’ to pick up the tab.
These free gigs happen for several reasons. Sometimes it’s to get the artist some exposure, and to give them the chance to sell some merchandise, CDs perhaps, but hopefully the much more profitable t-shirts. It could be something as grand as Tramlines, where smaller groups get valuable exposure to punters who otherwise may never have heard of them. Although let us not forget that Tramlines wouldn’t happen without the financial support of the sponsors.
Sometimes an established band might want to try out new material in front of a small audience to see how they go down. Someone I know walked into a pub a few years ago to see Scritti Politti (or rather Green Gartside and a few friends) setting up on the tiny stage. Totally unannounced, they were playing as a rehearsal their tour. He texted all his friends, but none of them made it down in time.
In the main though, pubs put unknown groups and singers on for free in the hope of attracting people in to boost the bar take. These free gigs are not without a cost, as the pub needs a licence for live music, but at least it might be less of a burden on the hard-pushed landlord than it once was. An unexpected piece of good news came from the coalition government this week, when Lib Dem MP Don Foster attempted to make it easier for your local pub to put bands on, and in turn give local musicians a chance to play. Essentially, pubs will no longer need to pay for a licence to put on live music. It was passed unopposed, and it might even make it into law before very long. With seminal venues such as the Grapes and the Boardwalk no longer putting on new, unsigned bands, this can only be a good move.
A colleague of mine is trying to get gigs for his new band, and has had to travel to Leeds to get on stage. How ridiculous: we should be making it easier for bands to play, even if it’s just to their mates to get them started. Playing live is the best way for your band to progress.
"What’s the best free gig you’ve ever seen?" When anyone asks me for my best ever gig, I usually say ‘the last one I went to’ but that’s an unashamed steal from John Peel. It’s a much easier choice if I’m restricted it to free gigs and I would have to choose UB40 in 1980. Back in those days, Radio Hallam used to broadcast live road-shows. In a fortuitous piece of advanced booking, by the time they set up their tent in a park in Rotherham, UB40’s first single ‘Food for Thought’ had just entered the top 10. The sun shone, UB40 played, Radio Hallam couldn’t believe their luck, and free music had never sounded so good.
‘Nothing’s better for you than to go out and play live, even if it’s to 20 people. It gives you resolve, it makes you a better song-writer and it gives you the experience, the backbone.’ The guy who said that started playing in pubs at the age of 15, and never looked back, but someone had to give little Reggie Dwight the chance to play. Yes, even as I type this, Elton John’s on TV extolling the virtues of just getting out there and doing it. They won’t always be free, but won’t cost much so let’s give local musicians the chance, but don’t let’s forget: it’s then up to us to do our bit and go and see them…