Symbiotic Relationships (and other animals)

In the world of nature there are organisms that work together to each other’s benefit in a symbiotic relationship. If the relationship is beneficial to both then this is called ‘mutualism‘. There are also parasites. These feed off other creatures (or plants), draining their vitality, weakening them, making them more susceptible to disease with out giving any benefit. Essentially a parasite lives at the expense of its host making it less competitive.

Antelope with his new best friend...Sometimes it can hard to tell whether something is the one or the other. Until recently the Tickbird (or Oxpecker) was considered to be beneficial to the host, removing ticks from the ears and pelt of their host antelope or wildebeest (or whatever). But in fact it seems after they remove the pesky parasite they often keep the wound open and drink the blood of their host animals.

Mutualism plays a key part in nature, and also in the music world. For anyone working, or aspiring to work, in the ‘music biz’ there are a host of companies who operate to support musicians and other producers of music. In fact quite a diverse ecology has developed with all sorts of ecological niches being filled by the little critters.

Of course there are loads of straightforward service companies who provide physical production services; publicity printing, photography, T-shirts printers, CD pressing plants, artwork or website designers etc. For the performing musicians there’s also PA hire, live sound engineers and technicians, specialist transport, recording and rehearsal studios. And let’s not forget the instrument makers, sellers and repairers – where would we be without these folk (in credit at the bank perhaps!)

I would consider these to be part of the music jungle’s undergrowth. It’s pretty obvious what you are getting and you can decide on what the value of the transaction.

And then there are those selling ‘intangibles’. How to get your music past the gate keepers. How to get that important gig (or gigs) that will add to your ‘fan base’. How to work the internet marketing thing to end up with fistfuls of dollars. Talking like angels but acting like vultures, circling cyberspace until they see you pick up a guitar or a microphone and then zooming in. The problem is that they have siren voices. They sound so sweet. Why not buy a shortcut to success. Just wait a second Mr. Beelzebub while I find my pen.

The Surface Festival

Something I wasted half a day on this week was something called the Surface Festival. In their own words – “The Surface Festival is a European live music event. We are a festival of new music held throughout Europe in aid of discovering and promoting new talent.” – sounds great. What’s more it is promoted by someone who is famous, but more importantly a member of a successful band – Jon Brookes from The Charlatans. Apparently he’s been involved in the Festival from its beginnings, and has recently stated in his blog: “Surface continues to act like a giant music magnet finding exciting ground breaking new acts. It re-energizes the inner cities searching out new talent. The prizes and industry weight of the various associate sponsors shows the level at which this festival is now held in the industry.”

So this is great, a bunch of people who are dedicated to making me rich (or more importantly – famous).

But what’s my story?

It actually started with an errant email and a misunderstanding. But I ended up applying for a gig for my originals band and being offered a spot. Again in their own words, “Thank you for your Surface Festival 2011 application. After having vetted the applications we are pleased to tell you that we would like to invite your band to a meeting in order to book you onto the 2011 Festival.” Great, they like my stuff.

So I read further down the email. Apparently there’s “one-off deposit of £50 per band” that has to be paid up-front.

What’s this all about then?

“Experience has shown that if we do not charge a deposit some bands and artists will drop out on the day of their gig, leaving us with an empty slot which could have been given to another band.”

I actually think that this is quite reasonable. I’ve helped promote a few gigs and there’s nothing more frustrating than a band pulling out a day before the gig after you’ve done all the hard graft of publicizing their name for them. The implication being that the deposit is returned after the performance. After all, they have admin costs and it would discourage ‘time wasters’. The actual wording is; “You will receive the full deposit back on the day of your first gig if you fulfill the requirements of the Festival”.

At this point I was wondering what the ‘requirements’ were. Turn up and play for 20 minutes I suppose.

The next thing I did was my usual safety check and contacted my regional office of the Musicians’ Union and asked them if they’d heard anything bad about the festival. “No, but they’d check it out and get back to me”. The first response a little later in the day was – “have a look at the FAQs on the Surface Festival site”.


OK, let’s do that then, I mean it’s like reading through all the Terms and Conditions when you buy something on the internet (see Eddie Izzard’s take on this is on YouTube) …

Ah… As well as playing you must sell 25 tickets to meet the requirements.

Maybe it’s just me but this reeks of ‘pay to play’.

After the first 25 you do start getting a share of the ticket price. So sell 50 tickets and you get to keep £25 as well as your deposit. Incidentally, there is no mention of ticket prices on the website and I imagine that they are probably somewhat more than £2 so the refund is probably just “you keep the first £50”. Mind you , if you could sell 50 tickets, why would you need to be getting a showcase gig at Surface?

Oh I see, it’s a festival but it’s also a competition. You can win prizes, but more importantly you can win onto an ‘Industry Showcase’ in front of “front of a panel of independent industry guests”, the very folk who can make or break your band. Mind you, you have to get to Stage 4 – the Regional Showcase – before you get this opportunity. As intangibles go, this is pretty intangible. My experience with competitions like this, as a small time music journalist and erstwhile judge at local ‘Battle of the Bands’ competitions is that the acts with the biggest peer group or publicity budget get the audience votes. The voting for a band at a Surface Festival event goes like this;

  • 1 text vote = 1 rating
  • 1 audience vote = 5 ratings
  • 1 musicians’ vote = 20 ratings
  • 1 industry vote = 30 ratings

Text vote? This is for those of your fans who couldn’t make it to the gig. Checking the text vote Terms and Conditions – “You may vote as many times as you like, however we do recommend you set yourself a limit and text vote responsibly.” Text votes cost £1 a pop, but conceivably this could be abused by rich kids, bands with pushy parents or large peer groups. Also the income from this kind of texting setup is split between the mobile operator and the company using the service.

Thinking more about income, there’s no mention about the price of tickets on the website. So I thought I’d try and estimate financial implications of this. They say on the website that they get 15,000 bands applying – at £50 a pop this gives a potential income of £750,000, or the ability to sell 375,000 tickets if every act can deliver 25 punters. Looking at it another way, the competition takes place in 12 cities and if there are 35 gigs in stage 1 and each gig features 5 bands doing 20 minute slots (I’m making this up since the website doesn’t give any details of the number or format of the gigs).

This gives an up-front income over £100,000. As they probably not paying anything for the venues, the prizes or the equipment hire, this is pure profit. I may well be underestimating this and I haven’t taken into account any income from sponsors (I guess that most of this would be ‘in kind’).

One of the main justifications for the festival seems to be “to develop alternative ways for band and artists to gain exposure and develop their fan base”. The promotional value for bands is somewhat questionable as the only festival publicity is web-based. If this is like other ‘competitions’ then most of the publicity is done by the bands themselves via their social networks and fanbase.

So with the bands selling their tickets and doing their publicity it’s a ‘win-win’ situation for the promoter. This seems to be a well tried and tested business model for local promoters which has been scaled up a national level.

And anyway, while exposure is all well and good, as musician Pete Coe says “people die of exposure you know”.

Looking back at this blog it looks like a bit of a rant. However it seems to me that this kind of event (even if undertaken with the best intentions by the organisers) is open to abuse, panders to the vanity side of the music business and helps reinforce the idea that – rather than musicians being paid to produce music, musicians should pay to play. It also promotes amateur musicians to the detriment of the professional, or aspiring professional, musician.

They may well be angels – on the other hand, maybe we’re fools and horses (“Why do only fools and horses work?”)

Caveat emptor (buyer beware) I guess!

About Brian Heywood

Brian Heywood is a free range musician who specialises in edgy roots / country / celtic fusion music. Previous work has received comments such as "... aggressive, top notch fiddling set off by periodic guitar explosions." - Tom Nelligan, Dirty Linen Magazine (USA), "Just when it seemed as if newer electric British roots bands were getting thinner on the ground - Very welcome and very good." - fROOTS Magazine (UK) and Steve Barnes Fairbridge Festival Artistic Director (Australia) - "... a rocking band - I was delighted with the audience response."
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