Scarcely a week passes without a story on the so-called gig economy. But the ever-worsening economy of the gig – the beating heart of the live music scene – rarely gets a look in. Not only are venues around the country closing alarmingly fast, but many bands from the alternative scene are finding success without the hard-miles slog of the sticky-floor supporting act. None of this bodes well for good music.
For at least half a century – 1960 to 2010, say – the formula for emerging acts was simple enough. After a band had fallen together, and graduated from cover versions to their own material, the only way to test whether their music sunk or swam was to face the no-nonsense crowd at a local venue. Typically, this would be a pub or working men’s club, with many in the crowd there less to hear the band than to drink and talk. Those acts who did not split or combust in this baptism by fire could soon become warm-up fodder for more established bands. Pass that test, and they could later headline local venues, before eventually braving a tour around the county or country. Payment for each night’s sweat and tears would scarcely cover costs of travel and board; the pay-off instead was winning over ears. After some hurried studio time and hard-won radio-play, the ball could at last get rolling with real momentum. This is how bands across every genre were forged: without the venue, it was impossible to break out.
In 2019, things are different. Venues large and small are rapidly shutting their doors. Most damagingly, pubs are closing at the alarming rate of two a day: a quarter have disappeared since 2000. Even for dedicated music venues, problems extend beyond punters finding sufficient entertainment on their sofa: councils’ increasingly draconian noise abatement notices, rising rents and business rates, and the ever-seductive option of selling inner-city premises to developers. A once kaleidoscopic landscape is fading to grey.
Most of us have technicolour memories of teenage gigs, of deafening singalongs and of last trains missed. Venues across the country were as familiar as football stadia: King Tut’s in Glasgow, Dingwalls in Camden, Moles in Bath, The Joiners in Southampton. All are still with us. But gone for good are such sanctuaries as Manchester Roadhouse, Sheffield Boardwalk, Leeds Cockpit, London’s Astoria and Mean Fiddler; even Soho’s iconic Borderline will disappear this summer. In fact, the capital – unquestionably the UK’s most vibrant music scene – has lost a third of its live venues in the last dozen years, now having fewer than 100 ‘grassroots music venues’.
With gig life harder work than ever – for those playing and those booking – an easier route presents itself. Digital success. There’s no question that the internet’s global reach has transformed the music community. Almost all music ever written can be summoned within seconds; fans of impossibly niche acts can be instantly connected; out-of-print records can be sourced for a snip. Most importantly, however, once bands have recorded their first material, they can – at almost no cost – bypass both record label and dive venue by reaching potential fans’ ears directly: at first Bandcamp and YouTube, later Amazon, Spotify and Apple, provide the silent service of 21st century promoters.
Brilliant, no? Anyone can now enjoy any music remotely. True, but much is lost through bypassing the gig. First, what could be purer than hearing, in plain sight and full acoustic splendour, necessarily unique versions of songs, tailored ad lib. to the mood of the room? No digital wizardry can transplant you into such a space.
Second, the serendipity of hearing wholly new bands. Independent promoters – often folk who put events together to make a good night not a good living – compile bills that channel the eclectic spirit of the mix tape. There’s no guarantee that the headline act will have any close relationship with those in support. Whether chosen by the band, their record label, or their promoter, the results can be weird and wonderful. Or chaotically misjudged: it is fact not fiction that Jimi Hendrix supported The Monkees, Prince the Stones, Chas & Dave Led Zeppelin, The Fall U2, the Manics Bon Jovi, and Dizzee Rascal Muse.
Instead, music lovers online find themselves unwittingly stymied: if no-one knows who or what to search for the band, how can they be heard? The answer is cold and algorithmic. By some digitally-driven means like is connected to like, and likes corroborate these links. A band is thus actively discouraged from varying and complicating its sound. Far better to play consistently within the confines of genre and make themselves predictable and accessible.
Without enforced exposure to different sounds, the alternative music scene will self-divide and, inevitably, self-censor. Neither the streaming services, nor the artists who use them, are incentivised to risk new approaches. Each listener submits themselves to their own window of acceptability, shutting out new or challenging sounds.
Of course, live music still lives. But, with the jobbing gig on the wane, its character is shifting. Only for bands already with a large following does touring swing properly back into play. Academy-level or arena-busting tours can explode the coffers when tickets are guaranteed to sell out. As prices rise sky-high, bands seek to allay worries about value for money: why try fresh material when tours can be safe retrospectives, anniversary performances of career highlights, or the sentimental concertising of albums in toto?As for the big festivals, well, they are many things. But they are neither the natural place for bands to cut their teeth, nor for music lovers to grow them.
What’s more, these large-scale events rarely give either musician or fan the chance to engage closely with one another. The smaller the gig, the more intimate the event. I struggle to think of any gig I’ve really enjoyed when more than a dozen yards from the musicians. The performer loses out here too. Facing down a potentially apathetic, possibly antagonistic crowd is the single sharpest way of honing a band’s sound and aesthetic. And there’s an alchemical art to crafting the setlist: what opener will set the tone? What crowd-pleaser should come early in the set, and what as a closer? Or, if venue custom demands, what should make the encore worth its while? When to build the energy, or rein it in? Or indeed how to work in new material without losing the crowd? Questions like these test the mettle for the better and, without the challenge they pose, our music will be all the poorer. Happily, this complex problem has a simple solution: leave the screen and try the scene.