For the first time in ten years, I am not in a band. It’s a strange sensation: I feel like I’m part orphan, part explorer. It’s a new world for me.
And though I loved my time in The Bedlam Six and will certainly miss it, I’m glad it’s over. Since we formed a decade ago the notion of “the band” has changed immeasurably. When we started there was still a shred of glamour to it all, an outlaw quality that held real appeal. But now the DIY sector has warped into a twisted hive of marketing “experts”, self-styled entrepreneurs and numerous services to help “hone your brand” so that I find the bile rising to my throat every time I check my emails. TIPS FOR BANDS TRYING TO REACH THE NEXT LEVEL… HOW TO GET NOTICED… HOW TO GET MORE FANS… HOW TO MAKE IT BIG. There are now countless networking platforms, toolkits, advisory blogs, seminars, competitions. It’s brilliant to have a support network for independent practitioners, hugely valuable, but it’s gradually being taken over by profiteers: parasites who look at all these idealistic open-minded creative people and, instead of mucking in and helping out for the general good of the scene, they try to monetise the confusion. Their schemes tend to be short-lived but the damage is long-lasting. Everyone gets jaded, everyone loses a bit of colour.
We live in a world where fewer and fewer people are content to just listen to and enjoy music without having some sort of stake in it. That is not a criticism – how could it be? I’m one of those many individuals who wanted to be on the transmitting side of the microphone. I would not deny that pleasure to anyone. But I never envisaged a world where to be DIY is to operate in the shadow of some weird team-building retreat for potential rockstars. I’m old-fashioned, I like songs, I think they are what people relate to. And that is what I’m interested in: People. But now all I ever hear about at music conferences is stuff like “How to monetise your superfans” – i.e. getting more cash from the listeners who love your work more than everyone else. This bright idea usually centres on exploitation rather than reward, packaging up some existing CD bundle and scribbling a “limited edition” doodle on the outer packaging then charging five times the price. Why? Because you know that the “superfan” likes you, trusts you and will definitely pay for it whether they can afford to or not. Seriously? As far as I’m concerned those people deserve a discount, they’re the ones who stick by you during the fallow years, who recommend you to their friends and generally gee you up when you’re doubting the whole sorry business. More importantly they’re the ones putting up with your unstemmed tide of narcism on social media every hour of every day. Give them a medal not a bundle.
I was prepared to fend off smug business types giving me advice on how I could better market myself but I was never prepared for the marketing to become the main thrust. I feel like we’ve all become coated in a thin layer of slime, a barely perceptible and yet perpetually cloying patina of compromise. I loved being in a rock band. I loved who it allowed me to be onstage – Rock and Roll gave me the tools to unpick the tightly woven fabric of chronic Englishness that threatens to suffocate me daily. But something crept in and forced its way between us and the fun. Saying “I’m in a band” these days is met with the sort of hunted look that people display when pounced on by someone with a clipboard while out shopping. Everyone now just assumes you’re about to ask them to sign a mailing list or pay into a crowd-funding campaign.
I will never stop wanting to work with other people, despite being a very private writer I know that I am so much better with others. As a member of the Bedlam Six I was challenged at every step, always wanting to be as good as my colleagues, always wanting to challenge them yet ending up challenging myself a lot more.
But a band as a singular unit of measurement is a difficult conceit. Bands are doomed always to live in the future or the past – when they’re “on the way up” it’s always about hoping for bright lights and good times around the next corner, but once you’re established you’re running to stand still, or worse, harking back to the glory days. It’s all very unhealthy (and yet we’re surprised to find so many artists suffer from mental health issues).
The Bedlams formed in Manchester, a place so overrun with bands it almost feels like national service. You’d think this jostling of so many creative minds would spark a revolution but it actually precipitated a race to the middle, lots of would-be-next-big-things queueing up to be dismissed by an indifferent committee of old flag-bearers more interested in writing memoirs about the good-old-days than listening to the sound of a world they helped build.
I genuinely believe the phenomenon of Rock Stars will disappear. I look forward to it. We’ll just have bands who want to tell stories, make an audience dance or express themselves for expression’s own sake; there’ll be none of this ridiculous second-guessing about what “the industry” wants, of setting oneself up as a messiah-in-waiting. But that is still a long way away, probably another generation will come and go first. My Bedlam colleagues and I got bored of playing the double game – normal essential stuff like gig booking and fee negotiation depended on media reach, with certain territories demanding certain levels of press support – everyone’s on a different page. Sometimes that makes it fun, sometimes a needless obstacle.
But whilst this stuff has been at the back of my mind for a few years, providing a kind of white-noise of cynicism that unhelpfully accompanies almost everything I do, I have no regrets about my involvement in this foolish business. We always saw ourselves as entertainers foremost and artists second – that way the audience (rather than the ego) remains the key ingredient. We never wanted anyone to feel like they were investing in us, we just wanted people to have fun on whatever level they felt comfortable with. I think we achieved that. And on a personal note: I don’t think anything can beat the sensation of crowdsurfing to a song you’ve written yourself.
All this talk makes me sound like we’re planning to sit atop a viking funeral boat and strike a match. But none of us are really going anywhere, we all still separately earn a living as musicians and we can’t stop now even if we wanted to. But bands all run on hope. And hope is a messy volatile thing that we’re all tired of dealing with.
Still, as The Bedlam Six slinks away we leave you with many brilliant independent bands and artists doing amazing work on their own terms, who persevere despite an industry that attempts to cheapen them at every turn. There are too many to mention here but every single one has my sincere admiration. And if any of them are looking for a consultant guru that can help them hone their brand and optimise their product engagement my rates are very reasonable.
Here is one final gift from the Bedlam Six, a recording of the closing number from my musical. If anyone’s planning a funeral, this might be appropriate.