“It’s A Long Way To The Top, If You Wanna…”
Liverpool, alongside many other major student cities, is awash with local, unsigned bands and musicians. The local music scene seems to be something which most of these cities (Liverpool especially) take very seriously, as the arts have become increasingly valued and encouraged within our society as a whole. Local bands are a commonly overlooked sub-group – most people are happy to enjoy them if and when they happen to be around, but few people will go out of their way to actively promote them, even if they find that they really like their music. Many bands are discovered at gigs or via Facebook, but sometime afterwards, are never heard of again. So what happens to them?
Being part of a local, unsigned band is no easy task, particularly if you are a student. As well as the common responsibilities that come with the job, such as writing music, organising regular rehearsals, booking gigs, promoting gigs, recording your music, promoting your music, and overall trying to build something that can remotely be called a fan-base…your time is also primarily dedicated to obtaining a decent university degree. Juggling the two lives can be a difficult task, particularly on the student budget, too. Unless you have a part-time job, or your parents are willing to help out with the costs of equipment, rehearsal space, recording time, travel and CD production, then these necessities for a young, thriving band can be a little trickier to obtain on a frequent basis.
Any member of an unsigned band will tell you that, self-managed or not, times are changing for those wishing to make it in the music industry. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke himself claimed back in 2010 that major record labels are to soon become extinct, and warned new upcoming artists not to sign with one, implying that there is nothing they can’t do for themselves where the promotion of their music is concerned. With more bands and artists than ever these days taking things into their own hands with the almost-limitless tool that is the internet, what we seem to be cultivating at the moment is a DIY approach to music, as opposed to the traditional mainstream label protocol (waiting for a scout or label representative to discover you). It is no doubt a healthy mantra to offer to those who cannot wait for something that may never happen, as it encourages young people to create opportunities for themselves rather than leaving the rich and corporate with all the power. Having said that, could the DIY system simply be making things more complicated?
For one thing, as useful, convenient and amazing as the internet is, it is also an ungoverned place. Whilst it becomes easier for musicians and artists to put out their own music, it also becomes more difficult for our audiences to really appreciate it, as the sheer volume of music commanding attention on social networks and artist sites can be overwhelming. Not only this – musicians may have more control, but this means increased pressure and responsibility too. They have a responsibility to push their band onward and upward into the local limelight, and do everything they can to make their talents noticed. This can be a struggle when bands and artists lack any real business knowledge, any real industry contacts, and aren’t really sure about how to market themselves to potential fans. Having to take care of their finances, promotion, and networking can mean less time to focus purely on the music; literally every aspect of your band is down to you. But by the same token, this is what can make self-managing so great.
Larger issues also present themselves. Liverpool is swarming with young, unsigned and often student bands, all trying to create a following, and get their voices heard. With open-mic nights and live music showcases popping up left, right and center to simply accommodate the vast number of musicians out there, it is no wonder that Liverpool and its inhabitants seem to be pretty much unmoved by any new band that may dive into the music scene’s pool. Unless a band has an effective marketing/street team, and a positive connection with someone at an acclaimed venue who can pop them on the right bill at the right time, the chances are it will feel like a single raindrop falling into an ocean. Young bands therefore need to become more creative with innovative ways in which they entice the public, and hopefully the industry. This is not easy when so many of the tried and tested methods (social networking, mailing lists, artist sites and so on) now commonly fall into people’s peripheral vision. So many are doing and saying the same thing; it’s not grabbing people’s attention anymore.
People talk about the city of Liverpool having one of the best local music scenes, one that is strong and thriving. Yet all I seem to be witnessing is several thousand voices screaming over one another to be heard; pushing and shoving to get to the front of the queue. Hungry promoters seem to be primarily out to make a fast buck, by offering young musicians the opportunities to play gigs that are dependent on ticket-sales, or deposit-based (which often turns into ‘pay to play’ when musicians do not receive their deposits back, for whatever reason). Of course, promotion companies need to make a living, but according to The Musicians’ Union, all musicians should be paid at least something for their services – because it is a service – and this should not be dependent on how much money the band earns for the promoter. After all this, it is doubtful that new fans are earned from these types of gigs anyway, as it is common for bands to leave after finishing their performance, taking all of their friends with them. This hardly seems like a music scene that is thriving to me.
I am not suggesting that we dismiss the internet as a way to discover new, unsigned bands – quite the opposite in fact, as it is doubtlessly a crucial tool in finding and sharing unheard talent. I am also not suggesting that we set up criteria as to what is really worthy of our attention as far as local music is concerned. I simply believe that the local music scene isn’t always as easy-going and accessible as it’s cracked up to be. There is still a battle to be fought, and several obstacles to be overcome. For those in the arena, it’s not as friendly as it looks to those spectators standing on the outside.
Will the current local music scene ever change? Without going full circle and putting bands’ futures into the hands of the corporate music bosses, thus surpassing the local level, it is doubtful things will drastically change anytime soon. To win over the majority vote, musicians need creativity, talent, a good business or marketing plan, and a hell of a lot of luck. So next time a friend of yours needs you to attend a gig, share a track, or simply spread the word about their music in any way possible…you have no idea how much they will appreciate the help. Without those first brave few who are willing to stand up and shout about the music they believe strongly in, musicians will simply be left fumbling around in the fog.