It’s a huge dilemma; I don’t have the answer. Musicians who attract and entertain audiences deserve their pay. We have a wonderful, vibrant music scene in the West Midlands, a true source of inspiration, and a reputation-builder for the region. But I don’t know of anyone local who comes close to making a living from their music. Far from it - they're giving it away on Facebook and Soundcloud. And a grim report from the MU was posted this week stating that 60% of musicians worked for free in the past year.
Performers need audiences. Promoters need to pay for PA systems and venues. Venues need to pay the rent. But it’s not right that the creativity that drives this industry winds up subsidising everything else. Like I said, I don’t have the answer.
I do know that there are some fabulous people who craft free events for the love of it all, and to support, not exploit, the musicians and the music they believe in. Here's four of them.
If you spend any time in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, you’ll likely know of the Jam House. Mostly, you pay admission charges to get in to a slightly upscale venue (there's a sit-down restaurant, and a dress code applies, although it's pretty liberal). But there's a choice monthly freebie to enjoy. The excellent Ben Drummond hosts an acoustic night on the last Tuesday of each month.
Ben Drummond: It’s a booked session. There are producers (Gavin Monaghan) and record labels (M.A.S Records in Kidderminster) taking a close look. So there is a little something for the acts. There are five to seven acts each night, with me hosting in between. Everyone gets about twenty to twenty-five minutes. If it’s all going smoothly, I’ll probably do a little set somewhere in the middle.What’s the standard?
Great. I get a lot of – too many – enquiries for one person to deal with. My only proviso is that they have to be good. That’s why it’s not an open mic gig. This is a gig for people who already do it – not a gig to play in front of a few friends to build their confidence.Drummond is a pretty formidable musician himself, combining very strong technique with a huge range of music styles, and the ability to deliver to a very broad range of audiences. He’s got a terrific album in the making, working at Magic Garden with Gavin Monaghan, but that’s still in the mix. Here’s something from a couple of years ago.
Ben Drummond: The Jam House pays its way by having successful nights. It’s an established live music venue, with a solid mix of largely familiar nationally known acts that will put people though the door. But they’ve got a commitment to seeking out and supporting new talent, especially in the city, and that gets paid for by the nights which sell out. Thursday Friday and Saturday, you can’t move in the place.
I deal with acoustic and new acts. If acts I put on do well, they might get a night on their own. So the opportunity is to play in front of a crowd, and make it work. You have to work to get a crowd – you have to entertain.Watching you play live – the audience knows you very well. You have an audience that talks back and gives you a hard time on occasion…
They always want Mustang Sally…. But I have to be ready to give them anything.Ben Drummond - The Safety's Off
Where does your music come from?
I’m originally a bass player. It decides the chord and the melody. My dad was a bass player – music all around the house. After I got married, I stayed about two years in Spain, and learned a lot of tricks and skills. I’ve adopted some tricks and some skills from flamenco, but I’m not a flamenco guitarist. Those guys are born with guitars in their hands.Is any of that out there for people to listen to?
I’m recording at the end of the month with Gavin.The next Jam House acoustic night - Tuesday 29th - has a string of interesting acts, picked by Ben. Flame of Fervour perform, as will Nina Baker, and Greg and Salina. Also on the bill are Rebecca Downes and Alexia Farrell.
And Chris Tye.
Chris Tye: I’ve always been a guitarist. I’ve haven’t always sung. I was in a band… and got pushed to do a gig on my own and it went from there. I did some demos at Blue Whale, which turned into a mini-album, but this was at the very end of that period of new labels with a bit of money. The label folded, predictably. It was a good experience, some great tours, but I don’t think I was really ready for that opportunity.Chris Tye - Breakdown 2013
Yes. I’ve got one EP out, and I’m working with Ben Niblett at Jon Cotton’s (Artisan Studios) now. Full-band stuff. I’ve got Tom Livemore, Smudge on bass, who both worked with Carina Round... and Jayne Powell, Simon Davies from the Tone Thieves. It is a band – but it’s Chris Tye.It’s good to have songs that you can bring great musicians in on.
There’s nothing better than playing with other people … but I need the independence. It’s bad if someone leaves. If you’re in a situation where the drummer leaves, the band’s pretty much finished. I can’t have that. It’s way too important for me to be making music.Chris is playing in a trio line-up at the Jam House
A tickle of a guitar, three-part harmonies, and we’ll build up from there.A newcomer to the scene is Urban Fox, run by Hannah Fathers. They ran an event last week in lobby of the the rather swish new Bramall building at Birmingham University, with a terrific new (to me) talent – Chris Cleverley – supporting the wonderful Mellow Peaches.
Hannah Fathers: I started it in 2010, when I was at the Birmingham Conservatoire. For our major project – we could have done anything, a recital, a new work - we decided to run a folk club. So we started at the Yardbird, monthly. Now we’re at the Ort Café doing a thing called Girls Make Noise, celebrating female musicians. The idea is to give a platform for people just starting out, as well as having more experienced musicians, and we’re also doing folk at the Bramall Building.And this is a labour of love, like almost every other music activity in the city…
Yes, it’s not the day job. I’m a patron on my own projects!What else? At Symphony Hall, Folk For Free continues on Thursday early evenings on a monthly basis; they have a terrific spring line-up. While this is - still - a labour of love, it is at least supported by the Arts Council. And The Tower of Song in Cotteridge hosts weekly Wednesday open mic nights, and Blues nights on Thursdays, generally free as well. I hope to do more on both of these in the coming months.
There’s more, obviously. In fact there’s a hell of a lot more to support and enjoy. These are free gigs, put on by people who love what they do, and love the musicians they work with. Without exception, if an act progresses because of a slot at one of the above gigs, the happiest person, apart from the act, will be the person who booked them, with that outcome in mind.
24 Jan Annie Dressner at Folk for Free
29 Jan Acoustic Sessions at the Jam House
26 Feb Acoustic Sessions at the Jam House
28 Feb Katherine Priddy at Folk for Free
14 Mar Big Tent and the Gypsy Lantern at Urban Fox
Weds at Tower of Song: Rea River Roots club - usually free
Thurs at Tower of Song: Crossroads Blues club - usually free
Jam House Acoustic sessions
Folk For Free
The Tower of Song
Flame of Fervour
See also these 2012 blogposts
The Songwriters Cafe
We do it because we love it
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We're damn lucky. There's an unending variety of great music on our doorstep. I'm covering as much as I can get to. And I would love to hear from you... tell me what you might like to see covered, or feed back on what's already here using the comments link at the top of the post.