The live music scene has dramatically declined in recent years.
Does this spell an uncertain future for live music?
With Download in June and Reading and Leeds commencing this week, festival season is well and truly upon us. Therefore I thought I’d share with you an article I wrote for my other website Music Is Love a while ago, about the current live music scene in London and the UK.
There has always been a thriving music scene in London; from the Brit-Pop era of the 90s when every other pub and bar had bands playing almost every night, to the increasingly popular nightclub generation of recent years. “I believe that live music has become a corporate entity,” says London-based musician Marc Saunders, “it is far less about what music the audience wants to hear, but rather it’s about how much maximum revenue can be obtained by tour promoters.”
As a result of this cultural shift, it seems as though the live music scene has dramatically declined in comparison to previous years. Fellow musician Darren Kirby agrees, “There’s not really much interest,” he states, “people don’t go out to watch bands that much now, it’s more, people go out to get drunk or go to a nightclub… you don’t think I’m going to go somewhere to see a band unless your mates are going, or one of your mates is in a band for example.” He continues, “the way our society’s going now it’s just evolving into something else. I know a lot of people that will go to drum and bass nights but it’s still more like a nightclub or a rave.”
So does this spell the beginning of the end for the traditional live band experience as we know it? Contrastingly, Dan Hetherton from popular Camden music venue The Underworld doesn’t think so. “We think [the live music scene] is better than ever. Obviously record sales have plunged, but this hasn’t meant bands have lost the spirit, quite often we have bands in The Underworld seven days a week and it’s great.” He continues, “it’s great to see there’s so many festivals out there as well, we just hope the gigging scene won’t be devalued in the same way the record industry was, the only way to experience a band live is to grab the ticket.” Although he does admit, “there’s less of a rock and roll feel about everything now and there’s more pressure to conform to the rules.”
One of the behind-the-scenes problems bands and performers face when it comes to live gigs is the pressure put on them by promoters. “There are hundreds of promoters based in London alone who are able to give unsigned bands regular gigs in the capital,” says Marc Saunders, “the tricky part is finding a promoter who doesn’t feel the need to charge bands to play these venues.”
In some cases playing at a certain venue can be on the condition that the band brings in a certain number of people, or reaching a target number of ticket sales. Darren Kirby has also experienced this in his years of playing in London. “It’s a constant struggle with venue promoters,” he says, “they’re always saying you’ve got to bring like 30 people.” But, as an emerging band, building a fan-base from the bottom up can be quite a difficult and long process. “Almost every time I’ve played a gig, if they’ve bought in a big crowd it’s because I’ve pegged a lot of my friends and the entire load of them have just come along for me… every gig I’ve ever played in London I’ve always felt it’s just a bit of a waste of time, because what’s the point in doing this if I’m not playing to somebody? It’s nice playing to your friends, but your friends are always going to tell you it’s good.”
However, there are still some who think the live scene in London hasn’t lost its je-ne-se-quoi just yet, Saunders being one of them. Having played in venues such as the 229, Camden Barfly and Enterprise he counters, “It’s a fantastic experience to play in London. Each venue has its own distinct qualities and atmosphere and they are unparalleled to stages outside the city.” He expands, “the more corporate venues such as The O2 and Hammersmith Apollo emit a different vibe to the smaller, more intimate places like The Borderline and The Underworld. In many ways it is the latter which offers a more extravagant entertainment experience.”
And Mr Saunders isn’t alone, with thousands of music fans continuing to go to gigs on a regular basis to experience the electric atmosphere and sense of community that only live music can offer. Ex My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way explains of the live community, “you’re supposed to come to a rock show because you’re not cool anywhere else. That’s the point.” Despite being different people leading different lives, the love of music allows us to come together for one night and feel part of something amazing, because we all believe in it.
Walk into any gig venue and that unbridled love and passion can be seen, and more importantly, felt; the energy in the room, the crowd screaming along to every word, the vibrant, colourful light show enveloping you in its warmth, feeling like an affectionate hug between the audience and the band. It demonstrates that, as much as the bands are wrapped up in what they do, the audience are equally as affected by it. Another example of this, albeit on a larger scale, is summer festivals. Music festivals are an experience to be had, whether it’s due to a genuine interest in music, or just spending time with friends in the sun listening to bands, everyone comes together because of a common interest.
Nowadays there are many festivals to choose from all across the world, from UK’s Download festival, Benicàssim in Spain, Rock en Seine in Paris, as well as festivals that span across continents such as, Soundwave and –the most recent addition, launched in 2009- Sonisphere. This is a far cry from the choice of previous years when the ‘main’ festivals were Glastonbury and Reading. There seems to be a festival for the majority of genres, therefore trying to exclude as few people as possible, and allow everyone to experience the charm and seduction of live music.
Along with merchandise sales live shows are one of the few ways bands can make money nowadays, with streaming sites like Spotify making it possible for people to listen to the music without purchasing it, and the ever-present issue of illegal downloading. Despite this, some bands have been known to say that they don’t care how you listen to their music, as long as you’re listening. That attitude shows what really is at the core, and it isn’t fame, notoriety, or even money. It’s music, and the love of it. This has led to acts streaming live gigs online, particularly emerging artists who need to build a following.
However, The Underworld’s Dan Hetherton says of this, “you’ll never experience a live gig unless you’re actually there, the only issue is whether kids start to forget this.” He also raises the point that online shows could be more geared towards younger audiences who are too young to go to gigs. It could also work well for overseas artists who are looking to expand their fan-base.
So what is the future for live music? Marc Saunders says, “live music is not a necessity as it was in the past few decades. More of these iconic venues are closing down whilst bustling mainstream nightclubs appear to grow increasingly prominent. As a result it spells an uncertain future for live music.” Similarly Darren Kirby expands, “you won’t get your icons, you’ll get fake artists like Britney Spears and Cheryl Cole, half of them don’t even play live, they can’t sing live, it’s hilarious thinking they’re going to have a long standing music career because they’re not musicians, they’re models that have been given a microphone and told to mime.”
Although, both do very much agree that there is a need for a live music community. Darren explains that if you take the time to look in places you may not expect, you’d be surprised by what you find. “I found in East-Anglia, there’s actually a massive music scene. I never expected it but in Norwich there’s a load of pubs, and there just seems to be a lot more culture. You get people going to see gigs because they want to go to a place where a rock band is playing.”
So, are we just expecting too much of London? Whatever the case it seems that there’s no need to lose hope just yet, while there are concerns, it seems as long as there are passionate music fans out there who want more than what is deemed ‘cool’ by the mainstream, and who want to experience the buzz of seeing a band live, then the live scene will always have an audience.