When I'm not cleaning windows: the joy of being in a part-time band

With it harder than ever to make money from music, more and more bands are working ordinary jobs by day to do what they love by night.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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. “I can’t remember the exact statistic but something like 95 per cent of tour revenue now goes to 5 per cent of bands.”

“We were among the last crop of bands who took advantage of an industry that had money to throw around,” says Tommy Shotton, former drummer of the nine-piece band Do Me Bad Things, who scraped a top 40 single with Atlantic Records in 2005. “Our record deal gave us each a salary of £20,000 a year for two years. Money was spent on us as if it was nothing. The label seemed to think that it validated their investment if we agreed to travel around in a funny taxi with flowers and magazines in the back. There was a lot of ‘Oh, give the artists space to be artists’ – but all we were doing was sitting about, arguing about the sound of a cowbell while eating free doughnuts.”

Stories of huge advances (on royalties that often never materialised) have percolated into culture and continue to influence the daydreams of bands, although not everyone sees this as a golden era. “It doesn’t seem fair that today a band like Sweet Billy Pilgrim can share a bill with the Who and have to do painting and decorating to survive,” says Adam Chetwood, guitarist with the band Black Peaches. “But it was never fair. It wasn’t fair when someone at Universal handed out £500,000 to a band on little more than a whim.”

“We got offered a deal so big that I remember asking our solicitor if we could turn it down,” says Tim Chipping, singer of the band Orlando, who signed to the Warner Bros subsidiary Blanco y Negro in 1995. “A five-album deal for £250,000 . . . unthinkable. We knew we’d get dropped when our records inevitably didn’t go to number one, so our manager decided we should live on minimum wage. That money lasted for five years! I kept hoping that something weird would happen, that Radio 1 would suddenly love us or our music would get on an advert, but all I did was buy stupid things. Mainly Spice Girls memorabilia.”

“Firstly, you must be skint and on the dole,” runs the advice in the KLF’s 1988 book The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way). The first band I played in when I moved to London in 1989, the Keatons, ticked both boxes with enthusiasm. When we supported Blur on their first British tour in 1990 for the paltry sum of £50 per gig (still, incredibly, the common support fee in the UK more than 25 years later), we hurtled back and forth across the country, making absurd journeys and sleeping in vans so as not to miss our appointments to sign on.

For more than 15 years after the punk revolution of 1976, British musicians found their artistic efforts partly funded by the benefits system – not particularly generous but lax enough to allow recording and touring to proceed with minimal interference from the government.

Around 1992, however, this became much more tricky as restart programmes for the long-term unemployed were more vigorously implemented. Middle England no doubt rejoiced at the curbing of our feckless behaviour. “My local council got a private company to run a scheme where you had to go in every day and be humiliated – being taught how to shake hands,” recalls Tim Chipping. Some of the Keatons got jobs and others continued signing on, but inequality is destabilising; internationally famous bands might battle in court over their share of the spoils of success but part-time bands implode over arguments over petrol money and whether cigarettes should be a band expense or not.

These days, fortunate personal circumstances (described to me as “the Mumford & Sons route to success”) are everything. “Having supportive parents helps,” says Robinson. “It’s almost like internships. If you can afford to work at being a band for a year or two for no money, you’re in a very fortunate position – but that’s not practical for most people.” The other, much harder, way is to combine frugality with a strong work ethic. David and Peter Brewis from the Sunderland-based band Field Music caused a minor stir in 2012 when they revealed in an interview that their full-time musical career made them £5,000 a year.

“We wanted people to know what it’s really like,” says David Brewis. “It’s such a tangled web . . . the expectations of musicians, prospective musicians, fans. We do make a meagre living but we couldn’t do it if we were living in London.” Laura Kidd, who tours and records relentlessly under the name She Makes War, fled the capital to make things financially viable. “Living in Bristol has helped,” she says, “but I don’t have any savings to speak of, so I still have to do freelance work. I’d like to be full-time but I don’t believe that the world owes me a living. I mean, if I had loads of money to make a video, what would I do with it? Rent a camel? There’s no point.”

Brewis believes that unrealistic spending is inherently destructive. “We decided that we didn’t want money up front if we couldn’t see how to make it back,” he says. “If someone suggested spending £10,000 on a video, I’d say no, because I don’t see us selling another 3,000 albums as a result . . . The idea of profile is so imponderable – very important to being bigger in the music industry but something we’re sceptical of.” This potentially sabotaging effect of ambition is echoed by the singer-songwriter Chris T-T, who lived the full-time “dream” (“I was really struggling”) between 2003 and 2008. “It’s a universal error that bands make,” he says. “As soon as you get a sniff of something getting bigger, your ambition says you have to jump at that and you take a big risk that threatens the sustainable thing you had already. My risk was spending £5,000 going to the US, knowing that if certain things didn’t happen as a result, I’d run out of steam. I ran out of steam.”

Keeping things small can make them sustainable but this doesn’t sit well with the posture that bands often have to adopt: taking on the world and winning on your own terms. “Music is peripheral to that kind of ambition, though,” says Chris T-T. “The act of making music and the act of being successful aren’t really connected.”

The rock and pop canon certainly demonstrates that great art isn’t miraculously facilitated by money; if anything, it’s probably born of struggle. “What you could say is that money allows people to spend time on things that require focus and attention,” says Tommy Shotton of Do Me Bad Things. “But the dream of being a full-time musician is usually ego-driven. It’s to do with being looked at and idolised, largely related to self-esteem, and it appeals mainly to men. I’m hugely suspicious of making music for the sole purpose of having other people tell you that what you’re doing is good.”

Many bands are driven by something very different: musical odysseys, self-expression or just having a laugh. I play in a tightly rehearsed but wilfully experimental band called Prescott; we have long conversations about our music being heard beyond a small south London clique, but never ones about money. I’m also in a band called Dream Themes that plays raucous versions of TV themes, mainly because hearing Antiques Roadshow played at ear-splitting volume is a gloriously uplifting thing. But according to the former A & R man Ian Robinson, conforming to expectations, ticking artistic boxes and delivering the goods is the only route to the loot. “Even at the more interesting end of music,” he says, “there isn’t the scope for experimentation because labels and management are telling bands what to do. In the mid-1980s, Mark E Smith [of the Fall] could do what he wanted and sell a lot of records. That’s not possible any more.”

There’s also simple maths. Dividing a small pot of money between two, three, four or five people makes for a very meagre share. Chris T-T notes that the bill at the recent Great Escape Festival in Brighton was skewed far more towards “solo projects involving computers and acoustic guitars”. It is as if the whole idea of bands has become old hat. “I could have done my current tour with a full band,” says Laura Kidd, “but I’d have lost thousands of pounds. And the old notion that being a band enables you to play bigger stages or means you deserve to headline – that’s just nonsense.”

The knowledge that the full-time dream is rooted in nostalgia and fuelled largely by myth gives UK’s Best Part-Time Band a somewhat melancholy air. “The old measures of success have become irrelevant,” Ian Robinson says. “It’s now about advertising – either yourself, or products.” As unromantic as it sounds, the dream of becoming a brand, rather than a band, is probably the one worth pursuing if success can really be totted up on a balance sheet. Yet even if collective music-making isn’t a breadwinner, it’s still one of the most satisfying artistic activities humans can indulge in. As we look at each other during rehearsals, or at the gig, surprised at the majestic noise we’re able to make together, friendships are forged that blossom and last. That’s what sticks with me as I load my gear out of the minicab at one in the morning. Money doesn’t really come into it.

Rhodri Marsden is a writer and musician “UK’s Best Part-Time Band” begins at 9pm on Friday 3 June on BBC4

This article appears in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind