In recent years I have performed in quite a lot of ‘Battle of the Bands’ and other such contests. Generally I have enjoyed these experiences regardless of if I win or not. I am a musician, after all, and so where and whenever I get the chance to perform I take it gladly. I love to meet new people through music and in the contest environment I have found that generally people are extra attentive; fellow musicians are eager to hear their competition and the audience want to know if the next act is better than the last. This is all well and good and is a great way to get local people in touch with local acts. I say this because in my experience so far, prizes have been on a regional scale rather than a national one. At the moment I am in the latter stages of an ongoing Battle of the Bands here in York.The winner gets to play at a festival which comes to the city later in the year and I’m excited to be a part of it. Other such prizes I have experienced have been things such as £200 prize money, a day of recording at a local studio, free instrumental lessons for x amount of months etc. All things which are great in their own right but, without meaning to sound disrespectful, not particularly life-changing.
I am writing this little piece, though, because of a recent experience which has left me completely and utterly flabbergasted at how a contest could be run in such a way. I am not going to name and shame, that wouldn’t be of my nature, but I feel this is something that needs to be talked about….
So, a little context: this Battle of the Bands is billed as a national contest. The winner gets to play at a HUGE festival, on a similar scale to that of Leeds or Reading - in 2010 there was an estimated audience size of 65,000. The winner also gets £500 in travel expenses for the band and even quality instruments thrown in.
This…this was part of the prize!
I had emailed the powers-that-be to organise an audition before I’d even realised what I was doing. That prize is huge. HUGE. I received confirmation of my entry and was given a date and time to arrive at the venue. The next few emails I received made me a little uneasy as they read:
'the first round will be determined by audience vote, so to give yourself the best chance of progressing, be sure to bring a crowd with you'.
In English this translates to: ‘regardless of how good or bad you may be, if you bring enough people you will get through.’ The event was roughly 60 miles from home, so funnily enough I wasn’t able to bring a huge crowd with me. However, I love playing so I thought at absolute worst the trip would culminate in a mini-gig and maybe introduce some new people to my work. The emails also said:
'for this first round each act will be limited to no more than two instruments…should you progress to the final you will be allowed a full band'
This, I thought, was a nice idea; to get the raw sound of an act down before anything else. So, I arrived at the venue and immediately realised just how terrible the organisation was. More context:
The venue was a bar. A sports bar. In Manchester.
The date? The final day of the English Premier League…when Manchester City won the title (yay).
You see my predicament.
So, on arriving I saw lots of people (drunk out of their heads), all of them glued to screens and with NO interest to the artists WHATSOEVER. To be honest, I don’t blame them. I would go to a sports bar to watch sports, especially on such a huge day….not for music.
I shook hands with the man in charge who told me I had a ten minute set (!!??!) and that I would be first to play - at 7pm. By then the bar had emptied considerably. My audience was the friends and family of other acts (one of which was a karaoke singer, with Shirley Bassey and Queen backing tracks and a LOT of family members) and immediately I realised this was hopeless. There, already, I had less votes than someone who hadn’t even performed yet purely because of her crowd. Her voting slips were already filled in.
How I felt the whole time.
I really do not mean to sound bitter - but surely for such a prestigious prize, the winning act would be an original artist…not pub/butlins/karaoke singers.
I played my set to around 20 people (other act’s families) at 7pm. I finished, had a beer and left shortly after. Just before 8pm there was maybe 80 or 90 people. So, it seemed that whoever played at 10pm was guaranteed a huge audience and would probably win. I don’t even know who won, it was THAT pointless me being there so I didn’t stick around.
I am aware that in writing this I come across as incredibly bitter but hopefully you can see where I am coming from. So, to summarise here is my list of how not to run a music contest, based entirely on the absolute scam I was unfortunately a part of:
- If you have a phenomenal…even career-changing prize on offer, do make sure only the best acts get through. You can determine who the best acts are by having a panel with a list of criteria to meet, ranging from stage presence to, dare I say….talent?
- If audience vote has any say in the outcome, then perhaps make sure each act has the same audience size, rather than one playing to 20 and another to 200.
- If the competition is for original artists, do not accept karaoke singers.
- Make sure each artist has the same set length, and if possible, more than ten minutes. I played for 9. A guy later played for nearly 20.
- Make sure your venue is suitable. If you own a sports bar in Manchester, perhaps choose a date/time that doesn’t clash with, say, City winning the league to organise a music contest.
- Above all, be realistic in your candidates and be fair in the judging. Or at least try to be.
I hope I make sense and you can see that I am not bitter…just a bit baffled.
Anyway, thanks for reading.
So in three months I completely finish my studies at the University of York and weeks later will graduate with a BA (Hons) degree in Music.
Just like most students I am no stranger to the dreaded question. THE question; creator of nightmares and killer of souls. (Especially to students of the Arts, might I add…)
So what are you doing after graduating?
There are people who have jobs, postgraduate courses and even gap years lined up. To those people I give my congratulations. I am a big advocate of forward planning. It demonstrates the notion of desire, of knowing what you want and making it happen. I am aware that such opportunities do not grow on trees, however, and that the professional world can be a cruel place for many.
When the question is directed at me I generally feel an essence of frailty in my reply. I am a confident person. I speak my mind. I say what I like and (
most of the time!) I like what I say. ‘Frailty’ comes not from lack of conviction on my part but instead from the vast array of reactions it invariably creates.
Some question why I would ‘pay tens of thousands in tuition fees’ to ‘merely’ end up doing it. Others question why I even bothered with university in the first place. A minority (comprised mainly of fellow musicians and the young at heart) say ‘go for it’ without ever forgetting the conclusive ‘good luck’.
"So Leo, what’s the plan after uni?"
"To move to London and play as much music as I can. I will probably have to get a part time job too, but mainly I want to play/sing anywhere and everywhere possible, to any and every audience…and for as long as time allows it."
I can see why doubts are cast. It is not a glamorous concept. Street corners, pubs and gardens will be just some of the ‘stages’ I embrace (although don’t worry - I’m sure I will play venues too!). It is by no means an academic or even financially prosperous route, but my motives are grounded entirely in the very lifeblood of musicianship itself: to make music for music’s sake.
In reply to those who question the importance of university in this topic I say that those who study music do so for the same reason as (most) other academics - to specialise in a field they are passionate about. University has matured me in immeasurable amounts as a musician. I can do things now I didn’t even know were possible three years ago, things I didn’t know I had in me. Perhaps more important than what I can do is what I do with it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
So then, university has been not only an important factor, but the determining one in this choice I have made. It has transformed me into 10000000 times the musician I was (at least!) but more importantly has instilled within me the desire to live by and for music, in the same way a priest lives by and for his God. That has got to be worth far more than whatever I owe in tuition fees…..and I owe A LOT.
Ed Sheeran, though not a musical influence of mine, is a perfect example of living by ‘making music for music’s sake’ and his success restores my belief that musicians can be recognised in a field so heavily infested with celebrated noise-makers driven purely by revenue.
In 2009 alone, aged 18, he played more than 300 shows at venues ranging from pubs and open-mic nights to schools and homeless shelters.
If that isn’t what making music is all about then tell me what is. I don’t intend to get famous like Ed has - though I think he deserves it and I wish him well in the future (not that my wishes are of any significance to him!).
All I want is to make music and if I do, by some miracle, manage to make a living from it, then it shall be a life well lived.
I never would be a good corporate manager anyway.