Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

When I'm Not Cleaning Windows: Inside the World of Britain's Part-Time Bands

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

When I'm Not Cleaning Windows: Inside the World of Britain's Part-Time Bands

Article excerpt

Another gig over. After slinging instruments and amplifiers in the back of a minicab, I slump sweatily into the passenger seat as the soothing sound of Mellow Magic drifts from the dashboard. "Do this for a living, do you?" the driver will often ask. "No, mate. Barely anyone does." It's almost a redundant question, like asking a teaching assistant about their offshore tax arrangements. And yet the myth somehow perpetuates, even in the digital age, that the supposed glamour of being in a band translates into bountiful cash rewards.

"I've heard that there are tens of thousands of part-time bands in the UK," says the comedian Rhod Gilbert in a new BBC4 series called UK's Best Part-Time Band, a nationwide competition for non-professional bands. For someone such as myself who has been immersed in that culture for 25 years, this isn't news. My entire social circle seems to hang off a framework of bands whose activities are funded by dentistry, teaching, telesales, IT support, construction or pint-pulling. From my teenage years spent trying to impress John Peel by hacking tunelessly at guitars, to my more studious exploits these days behind laptops and keyboards with Scritti Politti, the same question underpins every decision: can we really afford to do this? Often the answer has been "no". Yet, most of the time, we did it anyway.

"It's a cardinal sin that bands like these can't make a living from doing music," says the competition judge Midge Ure at the end of the first heat. An appreciative audience roars its approval, no doubt unaware of the huge list of factors that make Ure's wish fanciful, bordering on the ludicrous. Fun may be plentiful but expenses are hefty and financial rewards are paltry - yet bands maintain the illusion of full-time-ism, terrified that their credibility might collapse if they don't. "It's all about mythology," says Ian Robinson, a former A&R man with MCA and later Virgin, now owner of the management company Gift Music. "It's the romance of it all, although I'm not sure that romance ever really existed. I can totally understand why bands wouldn't want to acknowledge that they work in a bar."

By showing us the dual life of Britain's part-time bands (that is, almost all of Britain's bands), the BBC4 series offers some refreshing candour. The guitarist from Bombskare delivers meat! The singer of GT's Boos Band cleans windows! Someone from the Welsh skiffle band Railroad Bill works for the council! However, you also see regular flashes of hope that this could be a living, if only they tried a little harder and rehearsed a little more.

"We tried to give up our jobs, and we couldn't, so we went back to work," says Dan, singer of Johnny Cage and the Voodoogroove, when Midge Ure naively asks him about the financial viability of his band. "But," he adds, "we want to be the band onstage at the party at the end of the world!" As ambitions go, that's probably more realistic than most, according to Ian Robinson. "Being in a band is increasingly unrewarding," he says. "Unless you make a commitment to being a commercial band with a certain kind of sound, you'll need something else to make you a living."

This wasn't always the case. It's impossible to plot the average earnings of rock and pop musicians on a historical timeline; thanks to contractual anomalies, bizarre spending patterns and good old-fashioned fraud, bands and artists who appeared to be wildly successful have often been on the breadline, while ones we have never heard of have sustained comfortable lifestyles thanks to a combination of good fortune and savvy business sense.

Yet it's generally acknowledged that a turning point came around ten years ago, when declining CD sales, illegal downloads and a glut of alternative entertainment options caused money to drain from the industry, with any leftover cash flowing towards bigger artists. "It's the downside of what they call the 'long tail'," says Robinson. …

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