Four ways of building a better live music industry instead of returning to our pre-pandemic ways.

Now that the end of the pandemic appears to be within reach and live music venues are ready to get on the road to recovery, we should not strive for a simple return to normal. Instead, we should take this opportunity to fix our industry.

Imagine back in 2019 you were asked to advise on a remake of the infamous mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. You would find that most of the scenes would have to be rewritten. The stories of pitiful touring conditions and poorly construed stage props would just seem quaint.

Just before the pandemic struck, not just the amps but the entire industry had been “turned to eleven”. Everything seemed to become larger and larger every year and all of the players in the business had no choice but to follow that upward path.

This had a detrimental effect on the diversity of our stages. In the last twenty years the live music scene evolved from a broad network of music lovers -who often had more passion than professionalism- to a sleek and somewhat predictable machine.

As the pandemic ruthlessly exposes various flaws and shortcomings, this moment in history, just before the end of the crisis, is the exact right time to change course.

Let’s look at four things we could do.


1We could hand back the mic to smaller DIY artists and promoters

For now, the pandemic put a brutal stop to the growing hyperprofessionalism of the pop music industry. Nobody wants to return to the nostalgic ideal of amateurish rock ‘n’ roll but we need a more balanced ecosystem where smaller artistic voices not just superstars and super-products can thrive.

When I started out organising concerts in the beginning of the 2000s, amateurism ruled supreme.

Literally any music lover could put on a live show and pretty much any band could land a couple of semi-decent gigs a year. A lot of smaller artists could be part of a scene. In today’s landscape however big international promoters and larger music venues have gradually taken over the role of grassroots venues and music bars.

Over the years, opportunities for DIY artists and non-commercial musicians and promoters dwindled. An ever-shrinking group of music professionals got to decide who played when and where. And on top of that, they all seemed to like the same ten bands.

Hyper-professionalism has led to powerful gatekeeping structures that make it next to impossible to build alternatives from the bottom up.

This gatekeeping hurts the artistic diversity of our sector. It also explains -to some extent at least- the terrible gender inequality that still plagues live music stages. And it is the reason why stages are slow to adopt artists from more culturally diverse backgrounds.

Hyper-professionalism has led to powerful gatekeeping structures that make it next to impossible to build alternatives from the bottom up.

The pandemic has put an end to all of that for now. And if we want to, this could open up massive new opportunities for smaller artists and DIY promoters without the intervention of the usual gatekeepers.


2

We could build a stronger local European market

The UK and the United States have long been the dominating cultural force in the live music industry. It is notoriously more difficult for a band outside of the UK and the US to build an international career.

One of the bizarre quirks of the European music industry is that we seem to know about every obscure American or British release but are unable to name the three biggest bands in our neighbouring countries. It is this cultural hyperopia that is damaging the careers of our local talent.

One of the bizarre quirks of the European music industry is that we seem to know about every obscure American or British release but are unable to name the three biggest bands in our neighbouring countries.

In the coming year we will see only a couple of American bands doing European tours because of the pandemic. On top of virus-related travel restrictions, Brexit will make it harder for British bands to tour the EU.

It makes a lot of sense to use this time to finally build a better local touring market for European bands. Initiatives to expand tour schedules to neighbouring European countries would considerably improve market conditions for small and mid-level European bands.

In no way does this mean that we should resort to some sort of European protectionism. It would be foolish not to invite great acts from all over the world to our venues and festivals in the coming years. But this sudden virus-induced lull in long-distance touring is the ideal moment to start building a European market for European bands.


3

We could build a sustainable career in pop music

In many countries the forced closing of music venues was mitigated by some sort of temporary unemployment scheme for employees. However musicians, the essential workers of our industry, usually do not have that protection. The coronavirus once again exposed how financially precarious the position of our artists is.

It is a problem as old as the music biz itself: as soon as there is money to be made, a lot of the money goes to middle men. And even though most of these intermediaries are doing great and necessary work, it is a terrible thing to see that musicians can’t rely on the same protections and benefits as a lot of the non-artistic personnel.

Now is as good a time as any to try and find new and sustainable business models that end up paying artists a fair price. This will be a complicated story because the future of a sustainable pop music industry will consist of various interconnected business models, not a one-size-fits-all solution.

If we want to build sustainable careers in pop music, we have to build an ecosystem in which bigger players support smaller artists.

And yes, one of those solutions will have to be new agreements between concert promoters and representatives of artists about what we understand to be fair prices.

The solidarity funds that have been popping up in the wake of the coronavirus crisis are also an interesting avenue to explore. Part of the ticket sales of more popular acts or a percentage of the yearly profit of live music venues could go into similar funds and could be used to top up fees for smaller up and coming bands. In turn, these bands could then contribute to the fund if one day they themselves become financially successful.

If we want to build sustainable careers in pop music, we have to build an ecosystem in which bigger players support smaller artists.


4

We could start looking beyond consumerism again

A fish has no concept of water. That is, until most of the water has leaked from the bowl. Then all of a sudden the fish will be acutely aware of what is missing. In a similar vein the pandemic has taught us how much we rely on contact with other humans. And how crucial it is for pop music that there is a live audience.

This may very well be the biggest opportunity for the live sector in the years to come. Over the past decades our relationship with the audience has become too transactional. ​Bums on seats.​ Selling drinks and tickets became the driver for what we do and stand for. Creating a better product for individual consumers. Creating a better live experience, it seemed, was all about food trucks, VIP areas and ticket upgrades. But what about hanging out with your friends? Meeting new people? And ideally starting your own band after an inspiring night of gig-going?

Live music is more than consumerism. It is about the magic that happens when people get together in a venue. Bringing people together again is what grassroots venues do and this is what the world needs right now.

The pandemic has given us a new clarity. Live music is more than consumerism. It is about the magic that happens when people get together in a venue. First and foremost pop music is a social experience. It is nightlife. And it is precisely this sense of community that has been painfully absent from our socially distanced lives. We need to bring people together again. This is what grassroots venues do and this is what the world needs right now.


A new creative climate

2021 will be a pivotal year. We know that in the years to come the live music industry will be looking for new business models and new roles for musicians, venues, nightclubs, music bars, record labels and agencies. We also know that our industry will find these new models, just like we always have.

A new creative climate is about opening up the stage to a multitude of new voices. Not just to the guaranteed successes of tomorrow but also, and especially, to creative experiment and risk. There is no artistic innovation without the room to fail.

Now is the time to act. A new and more diverse landscape of pop music could emerge from this crisis. Not because it miraculously happened overnight but because we as music professionals got together and decided to build it.

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  1. […] I’ve written about this before: for historical reasons every European venue knows every detail about American and British bands but no one can name the top three bands in a neighbouring country. It is this lack of knowledge that makes it harder for non-Anglo band to tour Europe. […]

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