As a new year begins, artists have revealed the biggest challenges that they faced in 2023, and the changes they want to see made to the musical landscape in the 12 months ahead.
The NME recently supported the Featured Artist Coalition’s 2023 End of Year Party and AGM at Walthamstow’s Signature Brew in London. Following on from 2021 and 2022, NME returned to support the event as well as chairing an artist-led ‘Year in Music’ panel discussion featuring Murray Matravers of the band formerly known as Easy Life, Sam Duckworth of Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, along with rising and acclaimed singer-songwriters LVRA and Cherise.
As well as tackling subjects such as streaming royalties reform, the application of AI in music, the 100 Per Cent Venues campaign to end punitive commissions on merchandise sales, and the #LetTheMusicMove campaign to encourage friction-free international touring, the event also saw artists explain how issues of race, education, politics, fair payment and venue closures needed tackling.
Martin pointed out the success of their campaign for venues to take a smaller cut of musicians’ merch revenue, while arguing that that “being an artist has never represented the easy path, but today’s musical landscape is especially complex”. This, he explained, was due to matters relating to “making touring financially viable, achieving cut-through on streaming services, or simply finding the space and environment to create.”
“It was already a battle for attention, and now we have the prospect of AI increasing the rate of content creation,” he added. “In the words of the late, great Andrew Weatherall, ‘While technology has left us at the apex of a punk rock dream where anyone can make art, in practice that’s becoming a double-edged sword – it’s becoming hard to see the trees for the woods’. However, while technology presents new challenges, it has undoubtedly opened up new paths for artists to explore.”
Rowntree agreed, adding: “It has been quite a year for me. With Blur I released our ninth major label album [‘The Ballad Of Darren‘] alongside a world tour, including two sold out nights at Wembley Stadium. At the same time, I launched my solo career – releasing my debut album on an indie label alongside a more modest tour that included one sold-out night at The Joiners in Southampton. Which did I enjoy more? That’s the question.”
Admitting that “one event arguably overshadowed the other”, Rowntree added that he’d “seen both sides of the business up close and personal” in 2023 as a solo artist and with the Brit-pop giants – feeling struck by the transformation of the industry and the challenges it created.
“Blur hadn’t actually released a studio album since 2015 [‘The Magic Whip‘]. It’s mind-boggling to see the changes in the record industry over those eight years,” he said. “It’s an incredibly confusing time to be a musician.
“Our Blur album ‘The Ballad Of Darren’ on week one in the UK sold just over 44,000 units – including 22,000 vinyl albums, 13,000 CDs, 3,000 cassettes and 2,000 sales-equivalent streams. In fact, the album had tens of millions of streams on Spotify alone but the cassette sales had a bigger impact on our chart position. How does that make sense?”
Rowntree continued: “Add to that, we’re seeing the fragmentation of culture, an absolute tsunami of new music, the increasing power of content platforms, and the stifling algorithms of social media. This is an incredibly difficult moment for new artists to even get noticed, let alone try and make a living.
“So I think the FAC is more important than ever, as it’s a complex and uncertain world and we need an organisation that helps artists understand and navigate it. We need an organisation that can pick its battles. We need to make the label-centric model work more equitably for artists and prevent venues from taking an outrageous share of our merchandise revenue.”
Last year saw saw Easy Life play their final show under that name, having conceded defeat in a legal battle over the moniker against easyGroup (the brand owner of easyJet airlines) and that “sadly, it seems that justice is only available to those who can afford it” without “the funds to access a fair trial in the High Court.”
Despite this, frontman Murray Matravers said that 2023 was “a good year in general”.
“We had our first ever profitable festival season after six years of doing it, so we worked that out”, he told the panel at the FAC AGM. “We’re still here. We don’t have a band name or a band, but we’re still doing it.”
Since their last London show, the band have been enjoying a break with Matravers focussing on “writing, recording and reconnecting with the stuff that I like doing”.
“I’m in a good place and I’m looking forward to next year,” he said. “We’re not going to play any festivals and I doubt we’re going to do much touring. That sounds negative, but it’s a welcome break from the chaos of relentless touring.”
The band have often been outspoken over the prohibitive and increasing costs of touring for artists – having cancelled their North American tour last year along with European dates.
“We were supposed to do about 2,000 capacity venues in Europe and like a 500-600 in the US, but we had to cancel both of those tours because we couldn’t make it work financially,” Matravers explained. “We’ve got two albums out, we’ve toured America three times already and we’ve done Europe before, but we had to cancel them both at the last minute because we were going to be losing tens of thousands of pounds.
“It was really difficult for a while, because we live in a world where a – dare I say it – moderately successful band can’t play France and make it work financially. It’s a pretty fucked-up situation for artists. I’ve been there as an emerging artist staying in shit hotels and all that and assumed it would get better. I don’t mean to piss on anyone’s campfire but it really doesn’t; it gets more and more disappointing!”
Echoing the FAC’s advocacy for venues not taking a cut of musicians’ merchandise sales at gigs, Matravers called for more action to be taken on money landing in the pockets of artists otherwise “live music just isn’t going to be a feasible thing”.
“I’m actually talking with the band and management about our next tour, and we’re having to think about it in a whole new way because touring just isn’t financially sustainable at all,” he said.
Spotify continue to come under fire from for its model of paying artists. The company recently announced a streaming threshold of 1,000 plays before songs are able to generate royalties. According to Spotify data, there are around 100million songs on the service, yet only around 37.5million meet the new requirements to generate revenue. In November, the company announced that it would no longer provide its services in Uruguay due to the country’s copyright laws that would require “equitable remuneration” for artists.
When asked about what other changes he’d like to see in the music industry in the year ahead, Matravers hailed Spotify as a “great thing” for discovering music but said that “the royalty rate is terrible”.
“I assumed as a naive young man that if we got to where we are now then I would be really, really rich,” he said. “That’s just not the case sadly. I just want to see artists getting paid for selling records. Wouldn’t that be good? That would be a good place to start.”
Cherise was a past recipient of the FAC’s Step Up Fund, and went on to release her acclaimed debut album ‘Calling’ in 2023 – a period she called “a year of growth” but also “full of challenges”.
“A lot of the album was inspired by my Jamaican heritage and this year is the 75th anniversary of the Windrush Generation’s migration to the UK,” she told the panel. “It felt very timely, and it’s been a special year to be a Jamaican girl.”
The singer-songwriter said that her race had proven an issue when trying to navigate her way through the business realm of the music industry – with attitudes needing to be addressed.
She explained: “It takes a while even in meetings to be like, ‘Hey Steve the manager, you deal with this!’ Or, ‘So I notice in clause 11 that you’ve put…’ Sometimes I speak to the people I work with before I go into a room to say, ‘Can you say this, this, this and this’ because if I say it, an authoritative stance from a Black woman can be seen by some – based on their bias – as aggression. My assertiveness isn’t always taken in the same way that I see other people’s, so I have a 50-year-old white male manager to say the same things that I would.”
While admitting that she was extremely lucky to be raised musically in a very generous community” of jazz musicians and with help from the Black-run organisation Tomorrow’s Warriors that work to “empower people who might not have otherwise been able to gain access to a career in music”, Cherise said that independence had to go hand-in-hand with an educated knowledge of the economics of the music industry.
“I’m a bit of a music business nerd, which is good for the people who represent me and frustrating because I want to know what’s in every contract,” she said. “The biggest challenge for me is that I haven’t allowed myself to be the artist that switches off to the business at all and can just focus on writing songs.”
She continued: “Because I’m an emerging artist, I’m the one that’s handling the money – so what I say goes! Also, knowing that all of the people that represent me have many different artists to cashflow their life, so the decisions that they’re making for me lead to the next six months rent. That’s so personal for me. That’s the biggest challenge, but I feel so much more empowered.”
Ultimately, Cherise said that education was what made her most “optimistic” about her own career – but that the ins-and-outs of the business side needed to be taught in a much more widespread way.
“Being with Tomorrow’s Warriors from the age of 16 taught me that there are two truths: take care of the music and the music will take care of itself,” she said. “Make the best music possible, especially being around the jazz police. There are people within that community who knew that you need to take care of the business to protect the art.”
Cherise ended: “One thing that I would love to see change is these institutions taking on 18-22-year-olds and have them pay £9,000 a year and leave without knowing what the difference between PPL and PRS is or anything about publishing or copyright. I have seen peers of mine sign things without knowing the basics.
“Everyone needs to find out about the rights they inherit when they put out music, and all institutions need to have people well-versed in that so that artists can advocate for it and make money from the jump.”
Rising alt-pop singer LVRA is another recipient of the FAC’s Step Up Fund. Speaking at the AGM panel, she explained how she started 2023 in full-time employment in consulting and ended it by quitting her job and “focussing on trying to make music sustainable” – something she explained was not without its hurdles.
“I have very traditional Asian parents, so that was the route laid out for me,” said the artist, born in Scotland to Chinese parents. “Making music has been a really great way of being able to explore my ability to find myself. I grew up in Edinburgh where there wasn’t a huge amount of diversity of music and culture, so coming to London opened my eyes and gave me the confidence to just go for it.
“Now I’ve quit my job, and I went straight back out on tour and haven’t looked back since.”
Asked about challenges, LVRA said that “money is pretty much always Number One” but was “lucky” to be able to tour solo as “a one-man band”.
“I went on tour in Asia and had to reduce everything to a backpack and stay in varying degrees of accommodation,” she said. “That’s part of the journey as an emerging artist. It would be nicer if support slots weren’t paying £50, but I’ve had to try and react to that. Maybe because I haven’t been around too long and I’m only 24, I kind of saw that coming and had to prepare for it.
“Artists are just having to adapt. It’s tough, definitely.”
LVRA agreed with Cherise that ultimate the education of upcoming artists was important as she “didn’t study music and have never had anyone to tell me how to go about it” and thinks others should speak out about their difficulties to make fellow musicians feel less alone.
“My manager picked up my music when I was university and gave me the courage to release my first song, and it’s crazy how one person can make such a big difference in this industry,” she said. “There should be more of that from the very top of the funnel. It doesn’t help that we’ve got a fucking Tory government right now.
“Personally for me, people are becoming increasingly honest but also on a public realm on social media. There are a lot of incredibly smart people in this industry who have answers, but we need to let fans know that we’re struggling and for big artists to speak out and let fans know that they’re struggling at the very top. I’d love to see more honesty on social media.”
She added: “I want this whole fucking glass ceiling to fall down. No hate to anyone who uses TikTok, but AI, TikTok and all these algorithm-based technologies aren’t pushing things into the areas why I got into music. I didn’t get into music to go viral, I got into music because I wanted to say something.”
Sam Duckworth of Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. stepped in on the panel for Wolf Alice guitarist Joff Oddie, who was unable to attend. Having released his debut album ‘The Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager’ in 2006, as well as working as a producer and activist, Duckworth said that the current climate facing musicians is one of the most “difficult” he’s ever seen.
“As with everything at the moment, the margins are getting squeezed,” he said. “People are expected to do more for less, and the mechanics of life are much harder to navigate because you have to be in control of everything without being taught how to do anything. It’s quite strange.”
He continued: “There hasn’t been any kind of on-boarding about what the technological future looks like, it’s just a crash course. My survival mechanism comes from a firm belief that mobilisation of people against these things and this bullshit will eventually win out.”
Duckworth said that “the level of active solidarity that there is in the industry” was encouraging, but a more fan and artist-led approach was needed to secure a viable future for music in the UK.
After the Music Venue Trust recently revealed how 2023 was the “worst year for venue closures“, Duckworth said he agreed that there should be a mandatory £1 levy on all arena and stadium gigs to help support the grassroots as “an act of solidarity. He pointed to work he’d been doing himself with his local non-league football club, putting fans in control, and said that he was working with MVT for the music industry to follow suit.
“The audience voice is always assumed,” he said. “The music industry is £6.7billion per year to the UK economy and we always assume that we know what the audience wants. Actually, our active lobbying position would be strengthened if we had a unified understanding of what the consumer thresholds are.”
“Some people think it’s bullshit that there’s a £14 service charge on one ticket and £2 on another, but they have no way of voicing that opinion. As an industry, if we could get together and actively represent the consumer voice in the way that football did, our lobbying positions will be stronger when it comes to the things we want changing individually,” he added.
“Our solidarity and our knowledge base is amazing, but if we can now put the artist and the fan together, then maybe we can look at the government and say, ‘Treat us like another £6.7billion a year sector of the economy and not just like a bunch of layabouts.”
With a general election looming in 2024, Duckworth said he wanted all UK political parties to “pay attention” and put forward a plan to “take our industry seriously, to implement audience research and legitimate youth clubs and school education.”
He added: “Without loving the things that you love, then what’s the point? It’s easy to get ground down by the mechanics of what you’re doing. I just try to remember that I’m a musician not because it’s a good job, but because it does something for my soul and somehow I scrape around to make a living. That’s the balance. As long as I’m on that side then I’m happy.”