In music today, it’s all or nothing – rich at the top or languishing forlornly at the bottom

Would I want my children to go into music? I do have to wonder, just as my parents wondered.

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When he was little, our youngest asked me one day, “Mum, how much do you have to pay to be a fireman?” He was astonished to discover that it was the other way round – that when you’re a grown-up, people would pay you to do things like drive around on a bright-red fire engine, all flashing lights and clanging alarm bells.

Even after he’d grasped the basic principle, he would still check up on it from time to time, referring to different jobs. “Do they pay you to do THAT, as well? ...And that?” Adulthood seemed to him some brilliant dreamworld where you spent all day in a uniform being allowed to do fun things and then were given money for sweets.

I worry, of course, that the real world will disappoint him horribly, not only because most jobs aren’t as much fun as he thought but because by the time he comes to do one, his original assumption – that you have to pay to work – will be true. According to a recent article in the Guardian, “On average, people completed seven placements before getting a job”; another feature described existing internships in the US that do actually cost money. In the world of creative work, it has almost become the norm to be asked to work for nothing. Or, sorry, not for nothing, but for profile, the idea being that you will appear here, or write this, or sing that for nothing, on a path to some mythical destination where your work once again has monetary value.

It’s commonplace to state that in the music business no one can earn a living any more because of piracy, Spotify and cheap digital downloads. However many cheerful pieces we read about the vinyl revival, it seems unlikely that it’s going to make anyone rich any time soon. These complaints must puzzle those who note the continuing presence of pop stars who seem to be doing very nicely, thank you – the Kanyes and the Coldplays, the Sheerans and the Adeles, who all seem to sell plenty and earn plenty. To anyone on a minimum-wage or zero-hours contract, it must grate to keep hearing pop celebs bemoaning their income stream.

The point is that while music is as lucrative as ever for those at the top, what’s diminished, as in so many jobs, is the comfortable middle, where once upon a time musicians who never quite hit the big time could nonetheless make their living: not super-rich, but doing fine and enjoying a certain stability. In essence, the middle class, with long careers, funded by record companies to make numerous albums even if none were million-sellers. What we are left with now is a kind of all or nothing, in which you either scale the dizzy heights or languish forlornly at the bottom.

So when people ask me, “Do you want your children to go into music?” I do have to wonder, just as my own parents wondered. I’d been the first ever in our family to go to university and when instead of heading for a respectable job in teaching or journalism I formed a band, they were understandably anxious. It looked like I was throwing away the kind of security they could only have dreamed of and passing up opportunities that seemed golden to those who had left school at 15 with not much in the way of qualifications or prospects.

It turned out better than OK and so Ben and I will at least be able to help our kids while they find their own way. We’ll encourage them whatever they choose and discourage too rose-tinted a view of creative work. For Take Your Kids To Work Day, so far we’ve arranged for them a stint at Ben’s Buzzin’ Fly Records offices, putting CDs in Jiffy bags and taking 12-inch dance records down to the post office, a spell behind the counter at a Rough Trade shop and a morning learning how to mike up a drum kit.

But who knows where they’ll end up? One has already veered off into science, doing a week’s work experience in a lab, as thrilled and inspired by test tubes as I was at her age by seven-inch singles. What we wish most for them, like all parents, is to find something they would pay to do and then be fortunate enough to be paid for it.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!