$4 For A Steaming Bowl of Shit and A Broken Dream

Realising The Plight Of An Up-and-Coming Musician


Words || Phillip Leason

Last time I played at a music festival I made -$4. Yes, negative dollars. That’s before petrol money, Facebook post promotions, and food. And it was a shitty day. From the time I first started penning songs and jamming with mates, I’ve dreamt of festival stages. I can just imagine the crowd heaving in slow motion, the way it does in promotional videos, with that tasteful lens air, and a low-hanging cloud of body stank and stage smoke. Instead, I got up at 5am to catch a train, pack 160kg of gear into the back of two cars, and arrive to play in front of about 11 people. That’s our parents, a fistful of mates who’ve cut their pres short, the sound guy, and the two or three awkward stragglers whom festival etiquette would deem ‘too keen.’ After our set we were approached by the promoter, he handed us our payment, and trotted off. It was $35 – half of what we were owed. No explanation provided.

It’s pretty easy to palm it off and say, “Ah well, I should be thankful for the opportunity.” But I’m not thankful, I feel rorted. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and I know that my band isn’t the only one.

Let me break down how the process goes. First, you receive an inviting e-mail. The offer sounds great, you say yes, and there’s much rejoicing. Then you’re informed about your payment – it’s nothing. Instead you’ll receive a commission of the tickets you manage to sell. That sits somewhere between five and twenty per cent – generally four or five dollars per ticket. So you’re delivered a red-hot stack of tix, and the pushing begins. From here on out you can expect you can expect a sickly-sweet phone call every second day to check how you’re going with ticket sales, and a passive aggressive “hmmm” at your figure. Then come the emphatic e-mails about poor promotion, because you should be averaging three Facebook posts a week. You’ve got to impress, or you’ll never be booked again, so you start getting desperate. We live in a cashless age, and we’re all fucking lazy. I know that I, for one, would rather pay a $3 fee to book online to order a save going to an ATM, getting cash out, and arranging to meet up with a friend to put this cash in their hand. So in order to pedal your paper you door knock, you offer delivery, and you throw in free CDs. You slash the prices, and cover the loss yourself.

Then you step up in front of a crowd made up exclusively of the people to whom you sold tickets, and it hits you: this isn’t an opportunity for you. This isn’t another rung in the ladder to success. This is an opportunity for festival organisers to wrangle a couple of extra ticket sales out of some starry-eyed kids – an easy grab at free promotion, so they can meet profit margins in an impossible figures game. You’re just a free billboard.

At this point I know what you’re thinking: everybody knows the music biz is hard to crack, and you’ve got to eat some shit before you eat caviar. But this isn’t just eating shit, this is stitching yourself into a human centipede – a self-fulfilling shit-cycle that ends when your spirit breaks and you throw in the towel.

Or maybe you’ll strike lucky. The issue is, the chances of striking lucky are becoming increasingly slim. Music is so transient now, that it looks like nobody is ever going to be the next big thing. Streaming is wonderful as it means that essentially anybody can access unlimited amounts of music, but this has turned music into fast food. Once upon a time I’d buy the album everybody was talking about, and it would stay in my CD player for a month or so. Now, half a dozen albums get filtered into my Tidal ‘to listen’ playlist each Friday (yes, I actually use Tidal), and they’re replaced again next week by the deluge of new material from all over the globe. As a result, the album is steadily dying, and being replaced by high rotation mood playlists. This rapid turnover means that we have flavours of the month, and no longevity of success or popularity.

The effects of this phenomenon have inevitably spilled into live music. Artists no longer have enough recognisable material to satisfy a live crowd. Instead, for events we want a bunch of bands crammed together to reflect our playlists. So festivals are popping up and fading like bouts of eczema, and they’ve become disposable culture-kitsch – a place to flaunt your (pseudo)individuality, and get fucked up.

In order to survive this climate, the few remaining major festivals won’t give solid slots to up-and-comers any more: it’s too great a risk. Instead, they’re falling back on tried and true crowd pleasers to sell tickets – old timers. A study conducted by Spotify’s director of economics, Will Page, found that the average age of bands topping the bills of major festivals is steadily rising. When compared to the late nineties, the average age of these headlining bands has jumped up by around 15 years. This means our headliners are the same acts that killed it in the noughties. Look at Australia’s last big festival, Splendour in the Grass. The major headlines? The Stokes and The Cure. The Strokes haven’t released anything worth hearing in god knows how long, and the members of The Cure are so old they now look like a bunch of melting clowns.

The music industry is desperately trying to adapt, but the odds against it keep stacking up. All of this converges to create an unstable, cut-throat climate that seems doomed to collapse.

I know it’s a struggle sometimes to make it to a festival in time to catch the opening acts. But fill up an extra yoghurt pouch of grog, leave your pres a couple hours early, and make it in to catch those early bands. You’ll make their day, and all of the aforementioned shit will be worthwhile for them. And to any and all other up-and-coming artists, I say: abandon hopes of fame and fortune, ye who enter here. You’ll still have fun, don’t worry. Just know that there’s no glory, gold, or glitter. Always be aware of what you’re getting into, and don’t let yourself be exploited.