Music: The road to nowhere

Britain's live music scene isn't what it used to be. Why? Bands don't serve their time on stage like they used to. A government task force is reporting on the problem next week. But is it too late?
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The Independent Culture
Arguably, The Beatles are to blame: they usually are. The Beatles were the first group in the history of popular music to elect not to play live. By doing so, they freed themselves to use the recording studio as another instrument and make the audacious musical statements of Revolver and Sgt Pepper; but they also broke the organic, performing link with the audience and established a new hierarchy of artistic priorities. In this sense, the Spice Girls - who didn't gig until they had had a number one hit - are their direct heirs.

Yet the Beatles' expertise was built on live work, on gruelling nights in Hamburg and the long tours of the early Sixties. "Our best work was never recorded," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970, "in Liverpool, Hamburg and other dance halls what we generated was fantastic... there was nobody to touch us in Britain."

Where will today's young bands get that kind of experience? After a shaky year for the music business, it is timely that the Music Industry Forum - a panel of the great and the good that includes Simply Red's Mick Hucknall and Dennis Scard, the general secretary of the Musicians' Union - examine the neglected roots of the industry: live music.

When, in May last year, the Creation boss Alan McGee said the music industry was "on its arse and dying", his apocalyptic predictions could be refuted by steady sales stats. But hear any group of music executives in private and the concerns are real: over the longevity of acts, the standards of songwriting, the apparent inability of most contemporary groups to produce "catalogue", ie the long-selling works that recoup record company advances. Could the poor state of the live circuit explain some of these failures?

Andrew Roachford, whose eponymous group has built its following on extensive gigging, puts it like this: "You can practise and practise and practise but you have to go and actually be in a committed situation in order to perfect your craft." Ian Croal has promoted for more than 20 years at Manchester's Band on the Wall: "It's difficult to prove, but I'm sure it affects how people play. Every musician knows there's nothing like the real thing, and if the best musicians are not getting opportunities to perform, the highest quality levels are going to drop."

Until very recently, the rigours of the road were part of almost every musician's apprenticeship, where technique and stagecraft were learnt, and new ideas tested to destruction. Notwithstanding the crucial role of recordings, the history of 20th-century popular music is a history of gigs and venues - the Cotton Club, Million's Playhouse, Birdland, the Grand Ole Opry, the Cavern, the Roundhouse, the Fillmore East, CBGBs, the 100 Club, Eric's and so on. And, likewise, a history of those unsung risk-takers, the promoters.

One problem for promoters today is simply that there are so many other entertainments available. Peter Whitehead of The Band Register is a long- time watcher of the scene. "What has changed from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties is that there are fewer people going to live music," he says. "The figures just are not working so well, and that is down to factors such as computer games and dance music." Add some high-profile cancellations during last summer's festival season and promoting looks like a loser's bet.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that there's something fundamentally wrong with the economics of live music. At the top end - big halls and stadium gigs - touring now relies heavily on sponsorship or record company support. And at the other end, things are no better. "I now dread the idea of getting a band together to go out on the road," admits Ashley Slater, leader of funk/dance act Freakpower. "I know that tracking down gigs is going to be a nightmare. Below the level of record company support it's very difficult. After a couple of years on the road we were still getting pounds 400 or pounds 500 a gig. I like having a band - I was born to do it - but I can't afford it."

One culprit is the "pay-to-play" culture, in which bands desperate for exposure play for nothing - or actually pay - in the hope of attracting the capricious attentions of the A&R community. "We did a survey of listings for one month in Manchester," reports Croal, "and we found about 200 gigs. Ninety nine of these were indie or pop showcases, where if it's not pay- to-play it's pretty close to it. And the dream of having loads of A&R men waiting around to sign you seems to be a bit of a myth."

Remedies have been attempted. Recently the Musicians' Union launched "Gig-right UK" to help identify and encourage good venues. "It's about venues with fair policies, no pay-to-play, a decent PA, proper accounting. There are about 25 at the moment," says Dennis Scard. "We are also trying to get some funding for them, to establish a circuit."

But well-meaning interventions in live music promotion can actually be damaging if misjudged. Tim Parsons, director of the promotion organisation MCP, notes: "Millions are being spent on building new facilities which don't serve contemporary music at all well. There are major accountancy companies preying on municipal authorities, putting together business plans which make no sense whatsoever - and getting lottery grants on that basis, creating municipal white elephants." Clearly, the need is for support and subsidy which do not damage the fragile ecology of the live scene - which suggests that effective remedies will be local and incremental, and use existing promoters' expertise.

Live music is something that many support in the abstract, like eating broccoli or paying taxes. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has already registered one major political success on behalf of the music industry - creating a package for musicians as part of the Government's New Deal. How com- plimentary it would be if on 11 January the submissions of Mick Hucknall et al resulted in some im- provement in conditions for the promoters and musicians who feed the industry with talent - and what an effective refutation of the charge of industry short-termism that would be.