Guest post by Ian Ray – singer and songwriter of Straw Bear. Originally formed in Cambridgeshire, the band are scattered over the South-east and maintain full-time jobs around their musical adventures. Ezra Pound spent much of 1922 trying to prise fellow poet TS Eliot away from his job at a bank. Pound bitched endlessly about Eliot being ‘wasted’ in the day job, and such was the strength of his feeling that he tried to establish a fund so the younger man could devote himself to the poetry business full-time.
It didn’t work out, but Eliot (one mental breakdown later) still managed to write The Waste Land … and if he could produce the defining poem of his age around a demanding job, then banging out a few albums must be easy, mustn’t it?
Well, perhaps not … but then I don’t think balancing a career and a musical life has to be a breakdown-inducing hardship either. In fact, if I think it’s a hell of a lot easier today than it’s ever been.
For one thing, the ease of digital recording means almost anyone can make a record (for better or worse). Whether it’s a bedroom project or a larger enterprise at a local studio, a musician today has access to a huge range of sound and possibility at relatively low cost.
This record needn’t have been funded by a big label, who –understandably – expect your full-time commitment in return for their investment. Instead, it’s increasingly simple to crowd-fund a project, providing you have enough friends and family who will indulge you in those days before you reach a wider audience.
So far, so obvious. But I think something that’s often overlooked is the collective clout of the blogging community. To my mind, there are parallels between today’s digital community and the music press as it was three decades ago; there are bloggers out there who will listen to everything that comes through their door in order to satisfy a thirst for something fresh to share with others. These (often amateur) writers often sit outside the rather staid structures of ‘the industry’, and simply aren’t interested in your day job, your plugger, how slick your press release is, or how much you ‘mean it’. They just want interesting new music to write about, and our band wouldn’t have got very far without them.
Perhaps there’s also a sense of fraternity between bands like ours and these writers. I work as editorial manager at a national charity, and our music is shoehorned into the gaps in busy working lives. These music bloggers are often doing the very same thing, and are probably subject to the same ‘when will you give up the day job? ’ questions.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but my answer is always the same: why would I? Leaving aside the obvious financial security, I’m committed to a career that stretches and satisfies me. I genuinely enjoy my work, just as I love making music. Like any job, it has its moments, and that’s when the band disappears into a studio for the weekend to throw ourselves into our songs. I get back to work feeling like my brain has had a spring clean and I’m ready to concentrate on something else for the week.
The elephant in the room, of course is that all of the factors that make things peachy for us ‘semi-professionals’ are conspiring to make life impossible for young musicians with the talent and dedication to pursue a full-time musical career. Straw Bear: Pas Struthers, Tom Shipp, Ian Ray, Chris Gray, Catie Wicks
To put it bluntly, we can afford to be in a band because we’ve all got jobs. Our second album has sold reasonably well for a band of our limited profile, and we’ve been lucky enough to have the support of Tom Robinson and Bob Harris who’ve played our music on the BBC (whose Introducing … uploader offers a direct, democratic way to get heard). In truth, the money we make from sales, gigs and radio play will never quite equal the money we’ve put into the band, but the payments here and there at least mitigate our losses and prevent the band becoming a costly vanity project.
But the music industry can’t survive on part-timers alone. While I’d hope bands like ours have something to contribute, I don’t think anybody wants to see a musical marketplace made up only of those who can afford to be there. It is shameful that an industry with so much cash sloshing around is yet to find a way to share a living wage with the new artists actually making the music. The sheer inequity of the streaming services model will probably end only when conscientious consumers vote with their feet and support platforms that give young musicians the opportunity to “keep the lights on” (to borrow a phrase from Nigel Godrich).
We can only hope that the music industry of the future has room for all of us; we’re all richer for hearing the latest offerings from the bedroom anoraks, but let’s not lose the drug-guzzling superstars who keep things interesting along the way.
For our part, we will continue to balance work and play, just like anybody else who has an extra-curricular interest they love. And if EMI come knocking with a six-album, multi-million pound deal … well then I guess we’ll need to have a re-think.