Making money from making music: Is it a distant dream?

A dull hush descends over the room as Peter Hook, of Joy Division and New Order fame,  takes his seat on the stage. All eyes are fixed on him, as the sound of someone gently tapping their foot on the wooden floor interrupts the silence. Hook’s Mancunian drawl fills the air as he recounts good times and bad living at the behest of a tour bus. Most of the questions he enthusiastically answers are punctuated with a familiar sentiment among many musicians, “I still have to make a living, you know.”

Peter Hook at a book signing in Dublin

Peter Hook at the book signing in Dublin

Two books and a semi-successful nightclub later the man affectionately known as Hooky still has to make a living using other means outside of being a touring, recording musician. Some musicians can spend an entire lifetime touring and recording, yet they still have to find other sources of income to make a living.

Recent statistics from the Future of Music Coalition Organisation suggest that most musicians aren’t making any money from music streaming sites; this coupled with a decrease in album sales significantly affects a band’s income. Gone are the days when musicians can dream of being the next Liam Gallagher or Mick Jagger, maybe there isn’t a living to be made in making music after all.

“Nowadays it is a significant achievement if a band breaks even from a release,” says Kieran O’Reilly, lead singer of Dublin band White McKenzie, talking about how bands earn money in the modern music industry. “As an independent artist, you are directly exposed to three main avenues of earnings: live shows, merchandise and record sales. My exposure is confined to a local level on all three.”

Kieran O’Reilly from White McKenzie

Ireland’s independent music scene contains some of the most talented and interesting bands in the industry. Every year the Hard Working Class Heroes festival showcases some of Ireland’s best musical talent, but the issue for many musicians is that their bands’ exposure can be confined to local levels, giving little opportunity for bands hoping to turn making music into a career to grow outside of the Irish music scene.

“In Ireland the only people, other than a couple of major mainstream acts, making full-time careers are people who have started their own labels or have a couple of side projects like ourselves,” says Gavin White, front man of electronic-garage band White Collar Boy. “There is always the point where you need to decide whether to stay in Dublin or to move to somewhere more influential like Berlin or New York.”

Bands often move to larger cities with more vibrant music scenes in a bid to get a bigger profile and to expand their fan base. Similarly to musicians living in Dublin, it seems in other cities bands are struggling just as much to earn a wage. American indie rockers The National all had to maintain days jobs for several years between tours, even as recognition of their band grew. Only when they sold 600,000 copies of their fifth album ‘High Violet’ could they finally make writing, playing and recording music their day job. “Even though we have gigs internationally and we put out records we still have to keep part-time jobs to have a back-up,” says White Collar Boy’s Gavin White.

White Collar Boy

White Collar Boy

Another anonymous band on another anonymous stage. The thud of the drums makes the ground shake, the distorted guitars pierce through the air with ferocity as the singer screams into the microphone. The air is heavy as a throng of people are thrown together with no space to move, all you can do is remain and embrace the music pulsating through the room.

For the people cramped on the tiny stage, making ends meet by following their passion alone may be unlikely, but even if the music industry continues to be in turmoil it’s moments like this that make you realise that for the fans in this room and the musicians on the stage this devotion to and passion for music won’t end because of a lack of pay cheques or low attendance at gigs.

Making a living from making music may be a distant dream for many musicians,  but this hasn’t made their passion wane. Even though 56-year-old Peter Hook highlights how he can’t make a living from making music alone, not even for a brief moment does he look unhappy about this. He works to make music, he doesn’t make music to work, and it seems that this applies to many other passionate musicians too.

Gaggle Interview

Originally published in August 2009

Gaggle, a 22-piece London based female choir, creatively infuse powerful, fast paced evocative music with an almost intimidating air. Though Gaggle are only new on the scene, fronted by Coughlin formerly of 586, these girls definitely know what they’re doing, and it’s not to be missed…

Where’d the idea for Gaggle originally come from?
People who know me well know that Gaggle is the only logical outcome of my interests and talents. There’s more music than ever, more bands, more MySpace, everyone is in a band but most of them are just boring, ineffectual, limp splutters into space. I wanted my next music project to be powerful, warrior style burst of excitement, strangeness and something to annoy people who dream of being Johnny Borrell.  I couldn’t think of anything more powerful than 22 scary, smart women in evil monk-hoodies stomping and chanting about what it’s like being a drunk, or being lied to, or the disappointment of being politically apathetic.

You all seem to be quite a diverse bunch of people, how did you get to meeting each other?
Some of us have been friends since childhood, some of us have worked for others, snogged each other, got drunk in the George Tavern – our spiritual home.  Every gaggle is unique and brilliant,  each with their own super power.  No one was auditioned for Gaggle. In fact I found out the other day that Kumari had practiced some audition pieces, she hadn’t imagined she would walk into a strange theatre, be greeted by a dozen women oh oh-ing and me grabbing her arm, pulling her into the middle of them all and shouting “just do the oh-ohs”.  I don’t think we even said hello. It was obvious form the beginning she was a Gaggle – and that’s the same with all of them.

Does it ever get difficult having such a large amount of people?
We have a large number of people because it’s difficult with a small number. We can do gigs if 3 people are in bed with swine flu, hardly any other act can do that!

Surely there must be some tension?
Yep. I would be worried if there wasn’t.

Coughlin, while you were in 586 you shared a stage with 4 other people. How does it compare to sharing a stage with 21 others?
I conduct and direct Gaggle in live shows. I have my back to the audience most of the time. It’s amazing – it’s like playing the biggest, wildest, loudest instrument in the the world… one with 21 minds of its own and 21 voices. They are a force to be reckoned with.

Will there ever be a 23rd member? Will Gaggle be ever-growing or is it now settled?
For now we are settled, but we have an ever growing waiting list. We will do something about this. We have plans – good ones.

You wear some alternative clothing, where’d the idea for that come from?
Gaggle isn’t about women competing on normal levels, it is the opposite of ego-manic vanity. And a place to change the way in which people can judge us. We have a uniform like any army, religion or postman — we are Gaggle and we are different, together.

Who are your main influences?
Too long to list. There’s a lot of creativity and culture and learnedness in Gaggle. Other all-girl projects we love and have loved include Iceland’s Wunderbrass and Weird Girls, Wunderbrass first toured as Bjorks army of brass and the latter is a brilliant visual/video arts cult lead by Kitty Von Sometime. Then there’s everything from Spare Rib magazine to the Slits, to Jazz Domino’s Shoreditch Sisters WI. If you want to know about the music that has influenced our sound I write lots of it with a chap called Simon Dempsey (also from 586) and we range in tastes from Micachu to Dizzee Rascal to slave songs to minimal house. Gaggle love a bit of Spotify and if you were to leave us alone with it we will get through Bavarian Choirs, La Lupe, Courtney Love, Take That and Selfish Cunt in the first 20mins.

What can we expect from Gaggle in the future?
More. Much more. Gaggle gigs. Gaggle records. Gaggle blogs. Gaggle clothes. Gaggle books.  Gaggle schools. Gaggle dance. Gaggle ready meals. Gaggle driving schools. Gaggle cocktail.  Ronald McGaggle. Cirque de Gaggle. War on Gaggle…  stuff like that.

If you could describe your music in three words, what’d they be?
Come and listen.

  • You can listen to Gaggle here.

Interview with Tara Connolly of VOICE Ireland

One of Morrissey's campaign posters for PETA

Celebrity fads come and go, whether it’s carrying some unfortunate dog in a garish Louis Vuitton bag or living off a diet of baby food (creamed corn, anyone?). But one seemingly long standing trait of people in the public eye is that they align themselves with a charity. They all seem to have a cause, be it Bono and Bob Geldof trying to end poverty in Africa or Morrissey’s continued and very vocal support for PETA.

Recently, as more and more people have become aware of the damaging effects of climate change, certain celebrities have taken to promoting awareness of environmental damage. But how genuine are these campaigns? Do these celebrities really care about the environmental challenges which are being faced or is this just an opportunity for some good PR? Tara Connolly of VOICE Ireland (the Irish equivalent of Greenpeace) answered a few questions for me on this topic, and also the changes which can be made to reduce our impact on climate change.

It can be argued that celebrities use damaging modes of transport excessively and as such are not in a position to be advocating the reduction of carbon emissions. Do you find environmental campaigns to be hypocritical on their part or beneficial to the prevention of further damage to the earth?

There is certainly an element of “mixed messages” from celebrities that advocate personal lifestyle changes to help combat climate change. However, whether we like it or not, celebrities are looked up on by our society as role models particularly among younger generations. Celebrities have significant access to the media and are well positioned to push whichever agenda they so wish. In our opinion, if celebrities help bring the environmental cause, including climate change, to a wider audience then this can only be a good thing. Of course it would be better if celebrities practiced what they preached and minimised their personal impact but it isn’t clear if the public is aware of the extent of celebrities’ lifestyles.

 In your opinion do you think most celebrities who get involved in climate change campaigns are genuine to the cause? Do you think there’s a possibility that they could be merely copying what some other high-profile personalities are doing?

There are many charities and causes that celebrities can align themselves with to promote their public image. It could be argued that charities related to human rights and children generate more sympathy and human interest than environment-related causes. Because of this, we would be of the opinion that most are genuinely interested in the cause.

 If the general public were to make one change to their daily routine in order to reduce climate change, what would you suggest it be?

The 'Blue in the Face' climate change campaign

We would advocate that individuals look at where their food comes from. Local and, crucially, seasonal, food can result in a far lower environmental impact of a person’s diet. Buying seasonal and local food has the added benefit of supporting the local economy and can be surprisingly good value for money. In terms of climate change, flying is clearly the biggest impact that an individual can have but in Ireland we have fewer options than those who live on the continent or even in the UK . We would still advocate that individuals try to reduce the amount of flights they take, when feasible.

 What do you think can be achieved by making changes to our lives now? Is it possible that the earth is so badly damaged that it’s now irreversibly damaged?

According the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report, some damage is unavoidable at this stage as a result of greenhouse gases that have been emitted. This is largely because of slow feedback loops in the atmosphere and particularly in the oceans, which have far longer cycles than the atmosphere. It is hard to say whether the damage will be reversible – we are entering unchartered territory. In reality, the key question is whether we and the ecosystems that we depend on will be able to adapt rapidly enough.

Overall, do you think celebrity involvement in raising awareness of climate change is a positive or negative thing?

Overall, celebrity involvement is a positive development although I think their involvement would be more beneficial if it were targeted towards bringing about policy changes. Individual actions are important but many negative environmental impacts are locked into products and systems even before they reach the consumer so it is really at the policy level that I would like to see celebrities making their voices heard.

  • To find out more about VOICE Ireland then you can check out their website here.

Caruso Interview

Originally published in February 2010

Dubliners Caruso are preparing to embark on a European tour and recently signed a European publishing deal. Since the release of their debut album, 2007’s The Watcher and The Comet, they’ve been going from strength to strength with their affecting acoustic melodies. Frontman Shane O’ Fearghail answered the following questions for me..

Many musicians find recording an album, particularly their debut, a challenging and draining experience. Did this prove to be true to you during the recording of The Watcher and the Comet?

Recording The Watcher And The Comet was an amazing experience. It was challenging and it did take a lot out of me but it also brought an energy that was all its own. That creative spark that you get when you are in a studio. In the flow… a flow that drives you and keeps you going… so much so that food and sleep go out the window! The album was recorded in three one week sessions over three months and three full moons. It captured everthing that it was supposed to and a lot more besides!

Some of your songs appear to be about specific people, are these people aware you’ve written songs about them or do you prefer not to let them know?

Yes and no. It is not something that I would have ever thought about. The songs are written from a personal standpoint and have no agenda bar understanding how I feel about me, about life or things that keep my attention. They would be my observations…

If you had to pick one song off ‘The Watcher and the Comet’ and urge everyone to listen to it, what would it be and why?

There are several in fact. ‘All Your Features’, ‘Disappear’ and ‘Satellite’ would always spring to mind. ‘All Your Features’ because it deals with the true face we hide a lot of the time and how as people we can never truly say what we mean or how we feel. ‘Satellite’ because it is a song for personality, to express yourself and to stand up and counted!

What are your plans for your next album? Have you begun writing any new songs for it?

The next album is well and truly underway. We have demoed most of the tracks and are almost at the cut stage – as to what tracks will make the album sessions. It’s an exciting time and very different to The Watcher sessions. A lot of the songs are being written in the studio. Some of the songs have been written between the two albums whilst others written in preparation for the new sessions. I am writing constantly.

Who is your biggest musical influence?

Irish writers and those who write strong songs. People who are not afraid to write about the subjects that people shy away from. Good melodies. There is no ‘one’ influence. It would have to be the ‘song’ itself!

What’s been your best experience in Caruso in 2009?

Our European Tour 2009.

And what are Caruso’s plans for 2010?

More European tours, festivals and the new album. Pushing Caruso in new European territories notably Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Hopefully get to New Zealand for an acoustic tour.

General Fiasco Interview

Originally published in September 2009

General Fiasco, consisting of brothers Owen and Enda Strathern and school friend Stephen “Leaky” Leacock, have been setting the Northern Irish music scene alight for the past twelve months. Having already toured with One Night Only and Snow Patrol, and a certain Gary Lightbody singing their praises, this band is destined for big things. Lead singer and bassist Owen answered a few questions for me..

Do you have a specific method for songwriting? Is it usually lyrics first then music or vice versa?
It usually happens all at once, I’ll just sit with the bass or a guitar and start playing. The chords and melody come together and sometimes the lyrics too, they generally write themselves. Songs just come, when it works it’s good and then at other times you cant squeeze out anything. I guess it’s to do with mood or whatever, you need a little something driving the song – a stress or a worry…. or maybe something positive if you are that way inclined.

What are your plans as regards an album?
To make a great introduction to the band, to get across what we are about and also try and include where we are going, to stay true to what got people interested in the band in the first place and a little of where we might go with the next. We really want to stuff it with great tunes but I guess that’s up to other people to decide. We’ve got a lot of material ready for it and we are happy but we’ve a little more time to make something special, so lets hope we do.

Having been support to both One Night Only and Snow Patrol you’re certainly no strangers to the big stage, have you ever had a particularly nerve-wracking gig?
The Snow Patrol gig was insane, I can’t really remember being on stage – I think I must have blacked out and went into auto-pilot! I was really nervous playing a festival back home called Glasgowbury, we were on second last and there were about 2,000 people there – a home crowd. I’m not really sure why it got to me but it did, I think it must just be the home crowd.

 …. and what’s been your best gig experience?
There’s been loads – opening the John Peel stage at Glasto this year, playing with Placebo in London, the Snow Patrol gig. But nothing really beats a headline show when it’s rammed and everyone is there for you and knows the words. That’s exciting, that’s when it really feels like it’s working.

How would you best describe your live show?
It’s energetic, fast and aggressive but good fun. It should be lively, we should give it as much as the crowd gives – it’s only fair.

At present there is a burgeoning music scene in Northern Ireland, did you find it hard to ‘break out’ of the North?
I don’t really think so, you can never really do these things yourself. I know everyone wants to believe that if you just work hard and push your band out there things will happen, but it still takes someone booking you to play somewhere else. People have to want to write about you and want to play your songs on the radio for things to start to break. We were really fortunate that some people really got into the band and wanted to help it happen, so it was kinda easy but it took other people getting behind it to make it happen.

Any ultimate goals? (i.e. magazine covers, playing with a specific band..)
We really would love the album to be well recieved, if people can get into it and come to our shows and pick up our record I guess that’s what it’s all about. Sure, it would be amazing to be on the front cover of every music magazine and tour with the Foo Fighters, but we just really want to do this for a long time.

And we hope you continue doing this for a long time..