By Sarah McMullan
‘Making it’ is the concern of many musicians. To brush shoulders with the big guns and hold your own on a global platform from the fruits of your labour. To chase the dream and catch it.
The music industry, however, isn’t so straightforward. It surrounds us with an abundance of stars who have escaped the banality of the 9-5 to score our daily existence with their made-for-radio choruses. For the rest, the regular and dedicated musicians, it can be a long struggle of plentiful hours with little financial reward and the rethinking of what defines success.
From the outside looking enviously in, the winning formula seems attainable. Immediate chart breakthrough = blue hair x kissing a girl + liking it. Few think of Katy Perry and remember the honeyed notes of gospel music which came before her singing of the teenage dream.
In an effort to better understand the nitty-gritty, the monotonous effort and world of uncertainty that lies behind the strive for musical notoriety, I spent a day in the life of Bronagh Monahan, a Glasgow-based singer, songwriter and pianist.
Bronagh is an enthusiastically driven, hardworking young woman who moved from her hometown of Belfast in 2008. She is also typical of the multitude of musicians who put in the hours for little gain, or so circumstance would have it just now.
We meet in early afternoon at her favoured haunt for writing lyrics, The Rio Cafe in Partick. As well as coffee and booze it sells books and CDs over the counter – just the right amount of quirk to feel poetic enough to inspire bursts of creativity in its more artistically-minded customers.
Bronagh has already had a morning of giving private piano and singing lessons, one of her three jobs. She also works as a waitress and occasionally hostesses for an events company. These are what fund the practicalities of the day-to-day, but music is the persistent, ever-present desire. And so, with already empty coffee mugs, I begin to learn of the self-doubt that musicians like Bronagh must attempt to overcome before it consumes and cripples them.
“The difficulty is that we live in an age that feels so instantaneous,” she says. “You hear of someone new and assume they’re an overnight sensation.”
At school, Bronagh was in a classical girl group but she struggled with stage presence and confidence. “I felt more like a backing singer,” she says.
Things improved when university brought her to Glasgow, where she built up her resolve by attending open mic nights. But it took two years for her to find the courage to play her first proper gig.
With confidence often follows opportunity; more gigs and more exciting prospects. But Bronagh quickly discovered that trying to open doors for herself led her down the most merciless of paths.
“A friend managed to get me a meeting with a guy from music publishing company Kobalt. He basically said, ‘You’re nothing special, it’s never going to happen. This song’s shit, this song’s shit.’ It was so overly critical. When it’s your own music it’s so personal. It’s scary how cut-throat this industry is.”
Brushes with the puppeteers behind The Voice and The X Factor only added to her growing sense of disillusion. One suggested she change her style to Irish folk, the other asked her to masquerade as a member of a funeral group. (Who would’ve thought a television talent contest would sensationalise patriotism or attempt emotional manipulation?)
Caffeine fix over, eating is next on today’s agenda, so we retreat to my new friend’s flat, where she serves up a delicious homemade Thai green curry. Thanks, Bronagh (aka wifey material). Conversation soon returns to the 24-year-old’s experiences of the cruel densities of the music business, and in turn that very human feeling of not being good enough.
“I’ve had really bad anxiety,” says Bronagh. “Some days I’ve cried so much because I feel that nobody’s listening, nobody will ever listen. The worst thing I do is compare myself to other people; I look at them and wonder why they have attention over me? (A lengthy discussion about the merits of Nina Nesbitt may or may not have followed). The majority of successful musicians have that extra something weird about them. I often wonder if I’m too normal to be successful.”
After much discussion about Bronagh’s music it was time to see it in action. We head to a friend’s house to pick up a keyboard stand before fetching four of the five guys who make up her band and walking to the QMU student union at Glasgow University, gear in hand. FYI: keyboard stands are bloody awkward to carry.
Bronagh & The Boys are the half-time act at a dance show. The standard procedure follows: soundcheck, pint, gig. They play for about 20 minutes. Bronagh’s voice is as clear as glass; a crisp and definite sound, quite lovely. However, many punters choose to continue conversations or head to the bar instead. It’s just one of the common frustrations of playing a gig as an unknown act.
That status is something Bronagh, who has a Sunday evening residency at the Blythswood Square Hotel with her band, is doing her damndest to change. As soon as the QMU slot ends, she picks up her keyboard and hotfoots it to nearby Oran Mor, where she hosts a free gig night every Monday called Glasgow Makes Music.
“It’s a night where local musicians can meet each other without feeling like competition,” she explains. “That’s really what’s driven me forward this year – networking. I send countless emails to people but a face-to-face point of contact works so much better.
“I’m really driven. I know what I want but you have to be constantly focused. Gig till late at night. Keep your energy up. Keep writing. Send emails. Know you won’t get a reply. Play gigs. Know you won’t get paid. Make CDs. Put on your own gigs. Social media. Act professional. Make yourself known to people. Don’t be disingenuous. Maintain a high standard. Be grateful. Be reliable. Enjoy it.”
The slog of a musician is an indistinguishable haze of work and love. Like raising a child it’s testing and requires constant effort and nurture. Reluctantly, I have to part ways with Bronagh, leaving her to see out the remainder of her live music night and a 7am rise for work, ready to do it all again.
Before she introduces the next act and waves me off, I see her sheathed in the sort of glowing buzz that only comes with doing something you are truly passionate about.
“I work really, really hard to pay my rent,” she says. “It would be nice just to do music, to have that as my life and sing all over the world. I put so much pressure on myself, that’s where unhappiness in music can come from. But then I’ll play a gig and remember I love what I do.”
Photos © Sarah McMullan
The 15th of the month means Music Alliance Pact time, and the latest musician to represent Scotland is a most intriguing new kid on the block who was featured on this site’s top 10 tips of 2014 thanks to his quietly rousing songwriting.
Click the play button icon to listen to individual songs, right-click on the song title to download an mp3, or grab a zip file of the full 27-track compilation through Ge.tt here.
SCOTLAND: The Pop Cop
Lists – Autumn
Lists is a young man by the name of Ali Milesi from the island of Arran, but now based in Edinburgh. Autumn is the first song has ever shared and, trust me, that magnetic pull you experience when you first hear it will only get stronger after repeated listens. An exquisite lullaby, its hushed, quivering vocals and finger-picked acoustic guitar has already sparked an impressive amount of online buzz and gushing praise.
The web is awash with useful advice for musicians and terrifying tales about those who exploit musicians, but not so much is out there for the benefit of music consumers. In an attempt to redress the balance, this feature is designed to help those who attend gigs, and takes as its inspiration an internet phenomenon known as life hacks – a term for the improvised shortcuts and lesser-known tips that make everyday tasks easier.
So, in the words of every pop star ever, this one goes out to the fans.
Your so-called friend has bailed on you at the last minute, or you love a band so much that flying solo is a sacrifice worth making, but either way you’ve circumferenced the gig venue and there isn’t a familiar face to be found. You’ve got your own company for the next three hours, which isn’t so horrendous when you’re watching the headliners or the support(s), but how do you fill the agonising stimulation void when there’s nothing to look at on stage? The most obvious time-killing distraction is your mobile but after a while even that is tedious (only a parent uses the ‘A’ word) and, worse still, non-existent reception could leave you on the dreaded Infinite Address Book Scrolling Loop.
Fear not: salvation resides at the merch table. There, you’ll find a friendly lackey manning the desk who is usually bored and unbusy until the headliners finish. Ask them how they got their job and, by the time they next draw breath, several minutes will have been shaved off the between-bands deadzone.
There is another solution, but be warned, it is extreme: Find another gig loser loner and strike up a conversation.
The key point to remember is that your motivation is NOT pant-removal. Unfortunately, the other person doesn’t know that, and you know they don’t know that, so you better make sure your opening gambit is unweird and antisexual. This comes as second nature when talking to randoms of the same gender. Girls can recite that unthreatening favourite, “Love your shoes, where did you get them?”. Guys can wheel out the trusty, “Do you know the [insert football team] score?”. However, if you’re looking for ice-breakers for the opposite sex in a gig setting, you’ll need to customise your flow a bit more. “Hey, do you know who the support band are?” is fail-safe, but have a follow-up ready. Questions that demand more than a yes/no answer are going to get the chat zooming along and before you know it you might be exchanging email addresses, which brings us on to…
THE SECOND EMAIL ADDRESS
This goes against all your instincts, but adding your email address to the mailing list of every band you like is a good thing. In fact, The Pop Cop recently profiled an enterprise called Sofar Sounds who woo audiences to invite-only monthly house gigs in cities around the world solely through their mailing list.
By and large, musicians/labels are savvy enough not to harass you with trivial updates for fear of losing you to the Unsubscribe button, but even still, it’s worth setting up a secondary account to handle these sorts of emails and keep your day-to-day inbox uncluttered. You’ll soon reap the rewards when you get that important band update Facebook neglected to flag up, or receive an exclusive song download, or first dibs on pre-sale tickets, which brings us on to…
SALE AWAY, SALE AWAY, SALE AWAY
Tickets are sometimes put on sale a couple of days before they go on sale. Which makes no sense written down. But such is the brainwashing power of marketing that Apple persuaded tens of millions of people to buy an mp3 player which compulsorily shuffles their tracks. So let’s put logic to one side and discuss when ticket pre-sales can work in your favour.
If you estimate that the demand for an artist is at least double the capacity of the venue they are scheduled to play in then taking advantage of a pre-sale is a worthwhile endeavour. Likewise, if the gig is seated, pre-sales will often grant access to tickets with the best views before the free-for-all of a general sale.
Pre-sale links can be found via various sources: artist mailing lists, promoter mailshots, social media pages or sites such as Beat The Touts. Glasgow venue The Hydro offers pre-sale tickets for concerts 48 hours in advance through its SSE Reward scheme which is only accessible to customers of SSE, Scottish Hydro, SWALEC, Southern Electric, Atlantic and Airtricity. O2 customers can use the mobile network’s Priority Tickets service to purchase tickets up to two days before general release for shows at all of their O2-branded venues including the ABC and Academy in Glasgow. However, with most pre-sale offers it’s actually better to stick than twist, which brings us on to…
TAKING THINGS AT FACE VALUE
Paying the face value of a ticket is such a rare possibility these days that it really ought to be called the two-faced value. Many booking fees are unjustifiable, compulsory postage costs are inaccurate, and don’t get me started on the shameless firms who charge a supplement for e-tickets that you print at home. That’s why you shouldn’t hesitate to make a saving on your ticket price whenever you can.
The best chance you have of avoiding all booking fees is by going direct to the venue in person at least a day before the show and paying in cash. In Glasgow, for example, this method works at the SECC box office (who also sell The Hydro and Clyde Auditorium tickets), ABC box office (who also sell Academy tickets) and King Tut’s bar.
This is one of the reasons you should think twice about jumping at pre-sale offers, another being that such tickets are often sold via an agency called CrowdSurge who charge more in fees than competitors Ticketweb and Ticketmaster, which brings us on to…
Did you know that websites who direct traffic to Ticketmaster can get paid a referral fee of 25p per ticket if it results in a transaction? If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why you’ve been sent to Gigs In Scotland for information about tickets even though they don’t actually sell any… well, now you know.
Here is a way that you, the paying customer, can earn money every time you intend to use Ticketmaster. Sign up for a free account with cashback firm Quidco or TopCashback, use either to search for Ticketmaster then click onto the site and purchase your ticket(s) as normal. After a few weeks, a percentage of the ticket cost (1.5% for Quidco / 1.57% for TopCashback) will be deposited into your cashback account, and you can instantly transfer the readies to your bank. Never forget that the internet exists to serve you, not the other way around, which brings us on to…
CALL ME MAYBE (NOT)
The most common queries that punters have on the day of a gig are: “What time do the headliners start/finish?”, “Will tickets be on sale on the door and, if so, what price?” and “Who is supporting?”. It’s just as well that all venues, artists and promoters know* they have a shared responsibility to make these details public, so check Twitter instead of becoming that Very Irritating Person who called up the venue for information that was two clicks away.
*FAO: every venue, every artist, every promoter – I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but you have a shared responsibility to publicise that evening’s event details, preferably via Twitter, as soon as you have it because 1. You are the only ones privy to this information; 2. Fans have very legitimate reasons for wanting to know; 3. It frees up busy venue staff to do something other than answer the phone, which brings us on to…
You’re much more likely to use your mobile to take a photo than take a call in a gig. And probably in life. Such have been the technological advancements of camera phones that a shot taken with an iPhone finished runner-up in The Pop Cop’s 2013 music photography competition. In 2012, we ran a feature which explained how best to use camera phones at gigs and the advice of the two contributing music photographers is definitely worth repeating here.
By Euan Robertson: You’re unlikely to get a close-up action shot of the performers – the more you zoom in, the more of an issue motion blur becomes. Instead, it’s better to focus on capturing the atmosphere of a show. Watch out for house lights illuminating the audience, catch some silhouettes, wait for the exaggerated moves from the singer (arms in air, etc) to make them stand out.
Utilise the full capabilities of your smartphone. On an iPhone, you can tap the screen to focus and set your exposure (very roughly). For example, tap a dark part of the screen and it will expose for that, brightening everything, and vice versa.
By James Gray: Use both hands to minimise camera shake: tuck your arms into your side or rest the camera on your girlfriend/boyfriend’s head or shoulder. A bit on the short side? Turn the camera upside down and hold above your head – this will give you a few valuable inches. Just rotate the image once downloaded.
Keep the flash turned off. Built-in flash on camera phones will have just about enough power to light the back of the head in front of you, never mind the stage. Getting closer to the action will improve your chances of getting a good shot – and it will it be brighter. If you don’t have manual control, try using the night scene mode with the flash turned off.
Here are 5 other quick tips for the clued-up concert-goer…
KNOW YOUR EXIT
Some venues have exits that only open when a gig finishes, allowing you to avoid the frustrating bottleneck of punters going out the way they came in. Two in Glasgow spring to mind: the Academy fire exit to the immediate left of the stage; and the Barrowlands stairwell to the left of the main bar.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
If the venue is rammed when you arrive, your best hope of finding pockets of space is at the side of the stage that’s furthest away from the entrance. If you end up standing directly in front of someone who is much shorter than you, offer to switch places with them and they will probably become your friend for life.
P’s AND QUEUES
When attending an SECC/Hydro/Clyde Auditorium show, it used to be possible to park for free on many of the residential streets surrounding the Exhibition Centre train station then walk across the covered footbridge to the venue. However, Glasgow City Council recently announced they were introducing permit holder-only parking up to 10pm, seven days a week, so you’ll have to park further away if you want to dodge a parking ticket. Still more appealing than the queues and fees of the venue car parks.
If you can afford it, purchase tickets for the VIP/hospitality area. The quality of the toilets, the food, the choice of beverages, the clientele, the experience… it pays for itself; car sharing is also a good idea – you’ll meet new people and save money; consider a Two Together Railcard or Friends Fare if travelling further afield; take your own snacks as on-site munchies are invariably pricey.
One of your favourite artists has announced they’re coming to town, the on-sale date for tickets is seared into your brain and you’re psyched up in front of the computer, ready to play fastest-finger-first at 9am. What you may not realise, though, is that very few gigs sell out on day one. In fact, a heck of a lot of big shows don’t sell out at all, and when they don’t, that’s when you have the best chance of finding a ticket being resold for less than face value. Unwanted tickets used to be put on eBay but they’ve put a stop to that, so search Gumtree instead.