The music industry seems to be all about change at the moment. Or maybe it always has been - reinventing itself, finding new ways to reach people, experimenting with form. Out with the old, in with the new. If it’s too loud, you’re too old. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
But this time it seems different. To many people under the age of thirty music is something you get for free. There are many other distractions nowadays and music is not the all-consuming passion it was when I was a kid; you were a record collector, a hifi buff, and went out to lots of gigs at affordable prices. For an artist or band releasing music meant somehow getting a record deal, studios were complex and expensive and there were plenty of managers, A&R executives, agents etc ready to take their 10% of a very large pie from the lucky few who made it big. Those who failed were saddled with a massive debt (an advance against sales) that they could never hope to repay.
The internet, and in particular audio streaming, is the big driver of change now. If you are a pop artist it is all about YouTube and streaming and the minuscule payments for streaming plays might add up to a sizeable sum, but for most musicians their earnings are now mostly from live performance rather than record sales. The disappearance of the record shop from our town centres over the last five to ten years is testament to this sea change in the music industry.
For the independent roots artist it’s a different struggle. In a way, the last thing you need is a record deal as you can record your own music and press your own CDs if you want, organise global online distribution through iTunes, CDBaby, Bandcamp and the like. How do you pay for all this - hopefully from gig fees and crowdfunding. All this takes a lot of time and commitment and you need to be artist, manager, agent, recording engineer, publicist all in one. But it is possible to be the truly independent artist and make some sort of living at being a musician. In the UK at least, the blues audience still likes to buy a CD rather than download or stream, bucking the trend. The fans seem to invest in artists they like and the time spent talking at the CD/merchandise stall at the end of the night is invaluable to audiences and musicians alike. Close contact with your audience means that you will not get anywhere by hype alone. The Internet, FaceBook, Twitter and the like are of course important tools nowadays, but nothing beats the slow build of word of mouth, matched by actual talent, in not only getting noticed but building some sort of sustainable career in the music industry. Or at least in the corner of it in which I operate - which has blues at its heart, ever evolving - adding new influences and feels, but with an emotional depth at the core.
This spirit of independence and diversity is also apparent on the airwaves as many internet, community stations and networks now carry highly focussed programmes to blues, folk and jazz audiences. This is not ‘broadcasting’ in the traditional sense, but networks targeting a specific audience that may not yet be as high in numbers as the BBC or CNBC, yet each listener has a deep interest in and a dedication to the genre of music being played. You can be an independent broadcaster for very little outlay - but equally the perennial question is how to make money at it and the vast majority of these shows are done by volunteers in their spare time, relying on artists, record pluggers and PR reps to supply new material for their programmes. These shows and stations are becoming an important player in how the independent artist can have their music heard all over the world, by an audience eager to listen.
My radio programme features music by established artists alongside new and independent music, in a broad church of blues and roots music. The number of musicians and artists following the independent route will, I believe, expand hugely in the coming years as bands and singers run small family business-style operations with low overheads, experimenting with new technologies to record and release music, and heavily grounded in live performance. Indie music is now not just a guitar band genre, but a way of life for countless musicians across genres - all trying to figure out Music Industry v.2.0.
Producer, musician and broadcaster Paul Long presents Blues And Roots Connections on Blues And Roots Radio, plays with the band Catfish and was voted Independent Blues Broadcaster Of The Year in the 2016 British Blues Awards.