March 12, 2011 by Dan Swinhoe
Over the sounds of banging drums and the room being shaken from the rehearsal rooms downstairs Kenny Sanger tells me: “Looking for record labels is the last thing anyone should do.” Kenny runs Bunker Music in Sunderland, a non-profit recording studio/record label, that offers help to anyone within the community with an interest in music, including young offenders. It is funded by grants from trusts, and has never had much funding from the Arts council, so the government cuts shouldn’t affect him too much. “Financially it’s harder,” He says, “with the reces- sion bands don’t have the disposable income to make a demo every month.” It’s not all bad though, he continues: “One thing that has been positive is we’ve had more volunteering, more and more people wanting to get involved.” In the late seventies, we had winters of dis- content, recession and Punk changing the face of music. In 2010, we have biggest recession in nearly a century, Punk’s loudest voice John Lydon in butter adverts, Morrissey being racist, and Tom Jones’ gospel album at the top of the charts. What happened to recessions breeding great art and social commentary? The coalition government has recently an- nounced a 30% cut to all cultural, music and sport funding (The UK Film Council was an early victim) and there is sure to be major cuts and the loss of many jobs. And the ones getting the chop will inevitably the young who had nothing to do with creating the mess. In a speech entitled The Arts in a Recession, John Holden, a visiting professor at City University emphasized the need to safeguard things that have become less popular or less feasible – the “minority inter- ests, new art, and innovation.”
According to a report by Creative Cultural Skills entitled ‘The Performing Arts Blueprint’ (PAB), the UK’s cultural economy is the biggest in the world in relation to its GDP. The industry employing 678,000 people and generating £25 billion every year. The years before the recession were good for the arts, with 20% employment growth in the two years before the recession. With the recession and government cuts these numbers are sure to fall sharply. Banarby Archer is a 21 year old percussion student at the Royal College of Music, and is passionate about music and what he does. “As soon as I found out people did it for a living I knew I had to give it a shot. Nothing else excited me in the same way” says Barnarby. In his fourth and final year, he already teaches and explains: “I have started to freelance with some orchestras so after I leave conservatoire I will probably have to take on more teach- ing to pay the bills, play as many concerts as I can and practice for any professional auditions that arise.” While he is pessimistic about the government cuts (“Less work, and more to pay for education”) and worried about finding a job he is holding out hope, “It does happen” he says “there are two people in the last five years of leaving my department who now have jobs in great British orchestras. “I feel very prepared for the ‘real world’ after music college. Since day one we are taught how to play at a professional standard, so while we have academic classes to broaden our minds and give a wholistic musical education.”
Nearly half of people in music are under 40 and half of that less than 25, and in a sector that has a massive drop-off for people in their thirties and forties. Something needs to be done to protect the young. The PAB warns this reliance on a young workforce may soon be in danger because ‘people coming through the education system who meet industry skills and qualifications needs.’
David Proud, from Tech Music College in London (Formally Guitar College X) has already suffered, “The government budget cuts have already affected us, our last intake of Degree students were cut from around 140 places to 70 places.” And for next year there will be no government-funded course, so unless you have the money to go, you’re out of luck. David is more worried about the future of performers on stage though, “The main failing point for the government at the moment is their policy on live music; you have to pay for a license for even a solo or duo act to perform.” And he aside from the difficulty this is causing regular venues it’s “killing open nights and jam nights”. Who needs qualifications though, when you can create a whole studio on your laptop and do it all yourself. Right? Wrong. If you listen to the record labels. In the International Federa- tion of the Phonographic Industry’s (IFPI) new guide, ‘Investing In New Music’, the chairman John Kennedy calls the idea of people not needing a record label ‘a myth’, and later in the report the president for EMI’s new music dept. says: “If a new act could raise £1 million and spend it very, very wisely they might just make it, but I wouldn’t bank on it.”
The importance of the labels is in dispute. “Major labels are definitely not as important as they used to be,” Dave says. He points to the bedroom artists and the quality they can produce in today’s world. “Home recording equipment is now relatively cheap and you can get great results from it.” The results you can get from getting the audience involved can be impressive too. “There have even been cases where artists have asked the fans the help fund their album. The idea is that the fan will make a donation of their choice and in return they will be able to hear work-in-progress versions of the album as well as get a free copy of the album when it is released.”
While the PAB is a report written by a com- pany representing the record industry and may be a little biased, it does raise one useful point. The number of bands on the Internet is phe nomenal: according to the PAB there are over five million on myspace. Labels probably are the best way to advertise internationally, but there’s no advice for getting noticed by the labels in the first place. The PAB also boasts that labels spend around 16% of everything they earn on finding new talent, yet warns that unless ‘mass piracy’ is tackled this will cease to be the case.
But this isn’t to say labels don’t have uses. “In terms of national scene then big labels can af- ford terms of national scene then big labels can afford to take risks, but fewer are being given.” Kenny says. Things have changed for younger bands, “Maybe five or ten years ago younger groups were people coming through on an inter- national level, and locally bands may have been given a development deal and had an eye kept on them and given guidance, but nowadays this doesn’t seem to happen much, and if it does it’s weighted in the labels favour.” 360 deals are popular today, where the label own more rights over the artist than they used to. As well as the share of the music sales, the labels get a share of the merchandising, the tour, pretty much anything else that the band can make money from. And because there are so few deals around artists are accepting this.
Kenny’s advice is pretty clear too, “I think DIY is the way to go,” He says, if you look at the North East, most labels are one man bands and that’s the way to go. If a band is sitting around to get signed than their wasting their time, if they’re sending demos to London, they’re wasting their time.” The evidence is there to back him up.“Take the North East and The Futureheads or Frankie And The Heartstrings, they got up, went out and released something themselves that wasn’t just a demo or a self released E.P., but something physical that looked of real worth and given them some credibility.” More and more bands are joining the DIY route, the latest being veteran rockers Motorhead, recently forming their own ‘Motorhead music’ imprint to release their new album.
It seems like we’re going to have to stick with veteran rockers for the time being, Kenny isn’t very optimistic about ‘the next big thing’ to save music to be coming along any time soon. “At the minute everyone’s been looking for the next genre, and I don’t know if whether that’s going to happen.” He says.
It looks like Punk might be dead too: “With the recession and everything there doesn’t seem as if there’s enough backlash to what’s going on,” he says. “In the 80s it was about people power, and that’s how the Bunker was founded, given to the local youths.” Damage has been done. “It’s had an adverse af- fect, with being incomes so low, record deals be- ing so short, life spans of artists being so short,” he says. “But it has got rid of some of the poor perfumers.” Just not Jedward yet.