Too Many Musicians,Too Little Work? Economic Crisis Hits UK’s Latin-American Bands:

Musicians, Billy Joel (the American pianist, singer-song-writer & classical composer) once observed, “ Know what it’s like to be outside the norm – walking the high wire without a safety-net”. His compatriot, the jazz drummer and bandleader Chico Hamilton, takes a similar view: “A lot of musicians aren’t proud: They’ll do other work , just to be able to play music. They will always have to suffer to a certain degree in order to obtain their outlet”. Losing one’s job and not being able to find alternative employment is, however, no longer “outside the norm” in the Britain of 2011. In a sober assessment of this sector of the UK entertainment industry, the “Street Musician” website has highlighted some of the less publicised consequences of the economic downturn. The sales volume and average price of new electric guitars have, for example, declined significantly over the past year – though this has been partly offset  by an increase in the number of acoustic guitars being purchased instead. It also notes that people are tending to save their money by not going out so much  – as a result of which many venues offering live acts (and thus work for musicians) have closed down due to lack of customers. Other bars & clubs, however, which “previously did not need to draft in musicians at the weekend are now doing so in an attempt to draw in the crowds”.

Research conducted by “PRS For Music” (the organization that represents 75,000 songwriters, composers and music publishers in the UK) appears to confirm the wisdom of this change in policy:  It has concluded that pubs with featured music have  44% higher income every day of the week than pubs without, rising to 60% at weekends. Furthermore, that 80% of pub managers feel music will help them survive the recession: 24% of them reported that they earn 25%-50% more on nights when they have music and 71% said they get an extra 10%-25%. Following its investigations – which also revealed a “sharp fall in high street sales of recorded music and problems capturing the full value of music use online”, together producing a £7 million decline in royalties collected. – PRS launched a “Music Makeover” competition as an incentive for pubs wanting to improve the quality of music they are offering. The two winners last year were “The Royal Oak” in Taunton (Somerset) and “The Prince Of Wales” in Tooting (London) who both received £5000 to spend on “improving their live music facilities as well as expert advice on staging musical events”.  According to “”, there are currently 35 “Live Music Pubs” in London, among them the renowned “Half Moon” in Putney SW15 and others such as  “The Roadhouse” in Covent Garden  & “The Lord Palmerston” in Tottenham. “Street Musician” acknowledges that there are “good signs” of more gig opportunities, but are unhappy at the prospect that musicians’ wages “could be in jeopardy of being lowered as pub managers tighten their belts and new bands compete for their space in the spotlight”. The moment they are told to perform for £50 (and if they don’t like it there are many more out there to take their place) is when (declares “Street Musician”) they lose their dignity: “Its not just about the two or three hours you play on stage, it’s also the thousands of hours practice you put in at home and in rehearsals to enable you to play at a decent standard to the audience for that time”.

The situation for Latin American musicians in the UK is – in the opinion of Orlando Rincon, Director  of “Latin Touch Entertainments”- especially dire. He is also the leader of  the “Son Real Orchestra” , which until recently performed regularly at “La Rueda”s London restaurants near Tower Hill and in Clapham High Street. No longer. Most places in the capital that have traditionally catered for Latin American music have now, he asserts, either closed down or have stopped using musicians, replacing them with DJs. The only high-profile exception (so far) is the Cuban- themed “La Floridita” in London’s West End. Rincon does not consider that any of this is due to Latin ‘conjuntos’ charging too much for their services: On the contrary, even well-known, long-established groups such as the “Palenke” Salsa Band and the “Roberto Pla” Latin ensemble “these days are rather more flexible with their fees than before”. Others such as “Bahareque” have noticed more requests to perform free at charity events. “Street Musician” is not opposed to bands helping charities raise funds “ as long as it’s in a good cause”. So how are “normally full-time”  Latin musicians (those who don’t have a separate, day-time career) coping? Either (contends Rincon) by finding temporary alternative employment, subsisting on social security, or “accompanying a DJ with congas” – though “single guitarists can still get work playing once or twice a week”. Most pubs, meanwhile, are “only interested in putting on English music”, thus getting onto that particular circuit is not a realistic option for groups whose speciality and style is Latin-American.  Furthermore, the two major annual events on the UK Latin American calendar: the “Carnaval del Pueblo” at the beginning of August in south London’s Burgess Park (which is being “re-modelled”) and the ALAF (Anglo Latin-American Federation) Festival in Kensington Town Hall (October) – both of which invariably feature several London-based Latin groups – will not take place this year. Looking a little further ahead, however, Rincon is not totally & unremittingly gloomy: He anticipates that “things will pick up” in the months preceding and during the Olympic Games in 2012. Until then, most Latin American musicians “will have to manage the best they can and count the pennies”.

The difficult economic climate, though, is not having an equal (or even noticeably adverse) effect on all UK bands and musicians. When BBC News entertainment correspondent , Tim Masters, asked  “Status Quo” guitarist Rick Parfitt if he’d noticed a change in audience behaviour, the response was that “seat sales” are staying the same but that fewer programmes and T-Shirts are being bought. By contrast, Mick Jones of “Foreigner” (the British-American rock band which has sold 70 million albums worldwide) told the BBC that they have cut ticket prices “as it’s only fair to do that in a recession”. Guardian columnist Mark Beaumont has queried whether rock stars should be “complaining the loudest about losses on album sales when the same artists earn a fortune from touring”. He finds it “staggering” how much some of them ask for an hour’s work: “A new band with their debut album in the top 20 will cost around £20,000, double that if they are top 10”. Nor does he have much sympathy for members of the rock elite who have been “whining” about their allegedly declining cash reserves:  The latest  “Sunday Times Rich List” has indicated that Sir Elton John (after a rumoured dip of £60 million in 2009) is back up to £195 million, Paul McCartney is worth £495m, Mick Jagger £190 m, Sting £180m, Phil Collins £115m and Robbie Williams (of “Take That”) down at number 25 in the “Top 50 Music Millionaires” rankings with a more modest £90 million. Much of the shine has been taken off the image of Bono/U2 (who “earn £80m per annum globally and together are worth an estimated $720 million”) since it was reported that they have re-located some of their business affairs to the Netherlands in order to avoid paying tax in the Republic Of Ireland  (which  provoked “Art Uncut” protests during U2’s appearance at the Glastonbury Festival in June). Also in “The Guardian”, Pat Kane has suggested that Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts’s  “classic definition” of rock’n’roll (“five years of playing, 20 years of hanging around”) now needs to be revised to “Five years playing, five years typing, five years marketing, five years doing your accounts – with maybe five years left for nervous breakdowns / debauchery / some occasional songwriting”. For the majority of  musicians a long way further down the scale, counting their millions is not something which currently takes up very much of their time.






Filed under: Music & Dance | Posted on August 2nd, 2011 by Colin D Gordon

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