Striking a new chord: musicians diversify to extend their careers

Striking a new chord: musicians diversify to extend their careers

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On Thursday the singer-songwriter Billy Bragg will give a talk at the Bank of England about how to build a better society. Bragg, a pro-Corbyn activist and veteran protest singer, was invited as part of an effort to “shake up” thinking at the Bank, he told the Guardian this month.

While Bragg’s spot at Britain’s central bank is highly unusual, his unpaid appearance is part of a wider trend that has pop and rock stars trading on their name recognition without necessarily selling CDs or records.

Books, music coaching, public appearances, birthday cards, house gigs and bus tours are some of the ways musicians have been earning money to extend their careers or make up for dwindling royalties in the digital age. Often, fans are not interested in new music but want to interact with bands, as consumers spend more on experiences rather than buying physical goods such as CDs.

Chris Difford, co-founder of Squeeze and the lyricist for hits including Tempted and Up the Junction, is touring the UK to promote his autobiography, Some Fantastic Place, and fans are there for his anecdotes as much as for the music.

“People do want an experience and they’re not interested in CDs any more. When I ask the audience who’s got a CD player, hardly anyone puts their hand up,” Difford says. His royalties from Squeeze’s most famous songs have slumped from £25,000 a year in the 80s to £1,500 now.

Outside Squeeze, Difford makes money from an expanding portfolio of activities including songwriting workshops (he has also hosted masterclasses for the Guardian). A weekend workshop costs £500 a person and a week-long version £1,200.

Squeeze’s Chris Difford



Squeeze’s Chris Difford also earns income from songwriting workshops. Photograph: Pacific Coast News/BarcroftMedia

On Saturday Difford travelled to Kendal in Cumbria to play as a 60th birthday present for a farmer who is a Squeeze fan. Difford charges £1,000 for these house gigs. A sponsored podcast and a standup comedy set are next on his list.

Difford is one of a growing collection of rockers publishing autobiographies. The genre has moved beyond globe-straddling celebrity tomes such as Rod Stewart’s Rod: The Autobiography to more personal accounts such as Viv Albertine’s memoir of her career in the Slits, Clothes, Music, Boys, and Bedsit Disco Queen by Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn.

Pauline Black, lead singer of the Selecter, published her memoir, Black by Design, in 2011 and recently sold the film rights. She says the book, which describes growing up as a black woman in London and her role in the 2-Tone movement, has raised awareness of her and the band. In August, in a booking that echoes Bragg’s Bank gig, she will be paid to give a hard-hitting talk about race and gender to an insurance company. “That’s what they want and that’s what they’re going to get,” she says.

Pauline Black of the Selecter



Pauline Black of the Selecter is to talk about race and gender to an insurance company. Photograph: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

Miles Hunt, lead singer with the Wonder Stuff, has published three volumes of diaries charting the rise and disintegration of the band’s original lineup in the 80s and early 90s. He funded the original print run by selling handwritten lyrics to fans but stopped after about 600 sets. “It got tiresome and there comes a point when you’ve done too many and they become meaningless,” he says. Fans can still receive a signed “Wondergram” greetings card for £15 from Hunt and someone with a spare £1,500 can buy the tartan suit he wore at the time of hits The Size of a Cow and Dizzy.

It’s not only frontmen and women gaining a new lease of life. Rick Buckler, the Jam’s former drummer, worked as a furniture restorer, website designer and roadie after the band split in 1982. Now he is co-writing his fourth Jam-related book in three years and has done speaking tours linked to his books. However, he no longer runs a bus tour of Jam-related venues in London and the band’s hometown of Woking followed by a drink with him in a pub.

Miles Hunt from The Wonder Stuff



Miles Hunt from The Wonder Stuff has published three volumes of diaries. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Mike Lindup, Level 42’s keyboard player, has been offering music mentoring online for the past few months. At £250 an hour, take-up has been thin and Lindup says he is rethinking his prices. Next month he and Phil Gould, Level 42’s former drummer and chief lyricist, will host the second of what Lindup hopes will be a series of evenings where they talk about their music. The £35-a-ticket event, in Brighton, is a charity benefit although both men will pick up a fee.

Lindup still tours with Level 42 and has worked as musical director for the Michael Jackson Thriller Live musical but that show’s last tour took him away from home for 10 months. Despite co-writing hits such as Something About You, living off royalties is not an option, he says.

“To make a living, feed the family and all that I need to be working but I’m 59 with a young son and I’d rather not be out on tour for months at a time,” he says. “You have to think creatively to say: ‘What can I do so that I’m fulfilled as an artist while making as good a living as I can?’”

David Hepworth, author of Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars, says pop’s heyday, when musicians grew rich as distant idols on a stage or a record cover, was a blip – though many rock careers have been surprisingly durable.

“Now the record sales have gone, these rock stars have got to go out and get the money directly from the customer,” he says. “Some deal with this better than others. They are lucky they still have the name recognition that allows them to do it.”



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