JOHN MICHIE’S STATE OF THE (INDIE MUSIC) NATION ADDRESS (Part One)

HE’S Twitter’s champion of the unsigned musician, readily available and happy to offer wise words of encouragement and guidance to all who seek his counsel.

His Twittersphere touches every continent, but how comfortable does the King’s crown fit his head?

I TRY to help where I can and believe the unsigned guys are the best.

I recognise we must work as a unit to some degree as the whole system is rigged against us. Not every ‘champion’ in the blogs or radios accept every musician regardless of how good or bad they are. They have their favourites they swoon over and that is fair enough. They do that because they love a certain type of music or gigs.

The musicians though are great people with little ego. As long as you aren’t a diva they will help, talk, champion and accept everyone. They also respect each other and understand it is hard to create decent art. It is even quite hard to create bad art sometimes and they will recognise the labour.

But I don’t know if I am a leader or a champion. I am kinda the guy that likes logging in and chatting nonsense with people for hours on end. I am close to those guys as they know what a j200 or j45 is and my mates from school don’t. I am one of many musician champions on Twitter. Some we know about like me and others prefer to take a quieter role.

But I will take the crown if it is a shiny gold one.

But before immersing yourself fulltime into the world of music, you inhabited an altogether different world.

That’s right. I am a teacher by profession but quit because I was teaching six subjects at secondary school from Year 7 through to A Level, and then got asked to teach eight subjects from KS3 to A Level.

But teaching shaped who I am today, and I have taught over twenty subjects from KS2 to A Level. My last full-time teaching job was me handling six subjects in a high school and having to move every hour to a new room. I had to have my shit together especially when you are teaching A Level. It almost broke me mentally and taught me a few lessons.

But I saw how Michael Gove particularly messed up the arts along with a lot of other things that were never reported or talked about.

It starts there at the roots of education. In my opinion the government of any colour and the media are happy to protect a little boys club. The people on the television doing drama are all the same people in everything, Mel & Sue etc are of that Oxbridge group. Why do we need to see Olivia Colman in every drama? She can’t act and went to an elitist school in Norwich. There isn’t any social mobility.

That ‘Cool Britannia’ was a rare blip, and it was the same with the 1960s. You get surges of working-class people breaking through and the politicians are happy to ride that image and also to try and make them sell outs. John Lydon stating, he enjoyed Megan and Harry’s wedding says it all.

I know the government could have done better during the initial lockdown and that ‘retrain’ comment really showed the class system. As a forum of culture, they could have given musicians and drama a real national forum, at a time when we don’t have one, that would also do so much for national unity and help stop the drift of nations away from being a United Kingdom.

However, working in a career isn’t everything and it is more important to do something fulfilling with your life. Sounds a bit like Irvine Welsh here but I did decide to ‘choose life.’ I moved to the part of the country I wanted to live and arranged my affairs. I have done supply teaching since moving to Morpeth, but it has only made me more determined to find ways to get more involved in music.

I spent all my teens getting an education. In my 20s I was doing a BA and MSc and working my ass off in low paid jobs, part of my 30s working my ass off in high paid jobs and I am still in my 30s but decided that the sensible thing is ‘death’ and I decided to have a ‘life.’ Everything got moved down a gear. I am very fortunate to be able to piss around so much in my 30s.

It’s been a struggle for all of us over the past couple of years, but Covid has particularly changed the life of the musician, be they professional, amateur or whatever. But as hard as it’s been, there have been some positives.

Yes, the most noticeable way Covid changed music is that it has formed a music scene on Twitter for the unsigned. People were there before Covid hit as I remember talking to people like HD Bradley ( @HDBradleyMusic ) and Fedbysound ( @fedbysound ) but it wasn’t ‘close.’

So, the lockdowns were definitely a turning point for a large group of Twitter indies. It is certainly a moment where we started getting to know each other instead of somewhere you go to fire off a promotion Tweet hoping someone may see it. This is maybe how we view Instagram still.

I think there were little pockets of this but it was definitely the moment we joined the dots. We did also start working together more as a unit, just generally problem solving on ‘gear.’ This is how I met Chris James Willows @jameswillows to giving people a heads up about accounts that are looking for mp3s for a show and so on. I have no idea what the newbies logging on and seeing us rowdy lot think.

I’m not sure if we see the tables turn in our favour but I think it was the moment we got comfortable of our position of not being in the ‘signed fold.’ I think a lot of us realised we don’t need them. We’re still learning. I have recently tried to look at what I am doing from a record label perspective and expand revenue from streaming, we then share back what we find out. The labels will swoop if one of us gets big money coming in and mop up.

I now know something crazy like well over 200 different acts on a ‘we can chat’ type basis which is incredible. I also have some really, really, close friends now on the internet when we have never talked even over the phone. It’s crazy. We share information and help each other daily and work like a team or record label to an extent.

No one is earning big bucks but if you believe Gary Newman, neither is he. The thing that has been the most pleasing is this community has not disappeared since opening. The hours aren’t as intense but there is an 8am to 11pm crowd and I think that is because we have built something genuinely useful.

But there are also people on the edges that are supporting all of this from blogs to Moby Tanner ( @Mobytanner ) Old Indie Kid ( @oldindiekid1 ) and so on. There are a lot of legends helping make sure there is a scene.

Finally on lockdowns and Covid, are you more optimistic heading into the New Year over the plight of the indie/unsigned musicians, or less?

New Year. Covid. Well, I kinda expected this as it was buried in the PHE data during the last ‘lockdown’ (lots of deaths even after the vaccine) but I kinda expect the lockdowns and conga to go on, possibly now for a few years. I definitely expect another lockdown in the New Year, you just have to look at Ireland to see what is coming, but we may be lucky.

So how will this effect music? I think personally it will make ‘touring’ even harder for working class people. They already find it difficult to make money even when they are packing out larger venues. If honest I think this trend will continue as you know with climate change now verging on ‘this is about to happen.’ This will be terrible for maybe some acts. They will have to adapt to maybe what I am doing, and OrangeG @orangegmusic and Leigh Thomas @LeighThomasAU too with digital ways of raising their profiles. I honestly think live music will die long run and the digital forum will be the new way to build fan bases.

More generally I am actually very positive regarding the indie scene mainly because we have been all improving our gear. I have been buying guitars and now just waiting, if I can, for the M1pro chips to hit the Mac mini. I think all of us from Genetic Effects ( @geneticeffects ), Lewca ( @lewcamusic ) and OrangeG etc all need a new computer, there’s massive limitations having an old one, but then recording will start properly. We have also been writing a lot of material which will start to be recorded and released.

For me though I’d say not 2022, but maybe the year after, ‘watch out.’

Despite the internet, it has becoming increasingly difficult for new, and even somewhat more established acts, to get their music heard. Promoting one’s own music is a challenging and complicated issue for many.

Artists are being funnelled towards Groover, SubmitHub and Musosoup, where you hand over money and have no guarantee you will be taken on. I feel SubmitHub is basically a mugging, Musosoup they shove you on a playlist that doesn’t get played and ask for more cash for a review, and Groover, well anyone even me could go on there and start taking money. There is no guarantee they have influence or will take you on.

I am not a touring artist and have had to really push my music in the digital forum to find an audience, at one point I was sending over 100 emails a day leading up to the release of ‘High Vibrations.’ USA college radios the lot. I know most artists don’t do this or have some ‘manager’ doing it for them. I believe in my music and would like to find a larger audience for it. Some musicians think promotion is just posting the same presave link daily and expecting something to happen or a record label will sign you from that, when really the record labels are looking at profit margins and not talent.

Other musicians aren’t fussed and are 100% focused on churning out music and I can fully understand that, it is art after all. I think most artists still believe touring is the best way of promoting their music, maybe it is but in a Covid world and with a future of climate change I can see this changing. I don’t think most people have comprehended the projected impacts of climate change and currently I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘international tours’ are in their death throes by the end of this decade and by 2040 we’re all living in a 1950s type austere, dystopian world.

But you’re right, ‘promotion’ can be hard work. I have tried paying for reviews from various outlets to see the results. Submithub for instance is one of the few access points for us to medium/big publications. I have heard one or two that have done OK but mostly it is a mugging. The reality I think is you need a publicity company to kick the door open for you. This is the reason I believe you ultimately need to get signed to a half decent label, despite the state of the music industry, as they hold most of the cards and contacts. The big three record labels for instance basically monopoly own all the independent radio stations. There is no competition over the traditional airways. But this will likely mean the handing over of artistic control to someone who is focused on money and not lasting art.

I think you just need a connected publicity agency to take you on and they will listen. The A&R Factory for example is an important industry blog — or so they say. You can do free applications for a review which never get granted or pay and then they will review you. A lot of Twitter people have taken the attitude of ‘do we need these guys as no one reads magazines and blogs,’ but to me it is important. I will still consider paying money as a shot as I think every route needs to be chased for the one fan gained. Or in some cases to help assemble a press pack. One of the places I paid for a review helped get me verified on Twitter.

Even if you got signed and had the doors kicked open and had full access, turning a profit for the record label, or at best breaking even is a different matter. I think only 10% achieve this and the other 90% are in debt/failure.

The biggest problem for us indies during Covid is the gulf between where we are now and wider national audiences. The BBC is one of the few routes for us Brits if independent and not signed. The other way, Amazing Radio or NPR routes are pretty useless in my opinion.

In the early days of the pandemic when we had to stay at home the ‘establishment,’ the BBC etc acted as if it was business as usual and we needed to have a fan base to get recognition. The management and governors didn’t dedicate any extra time for indies. I admit we have it better that most countries but there is only so far you can get with just a laptop. Maybe this is all you need, and we don’t need these historic dinosaurs. After all the internet/technology is our most powerful tool and was not available to acts in the 1960’s who really did need to get signed to be heard and to record.

However, the major labels are shrinking in market share and the independent artists are growing. But this may be because of the ability to shove up anything if you pay the twenty to thirty quid and upload your music to the platforms.

I kind of expect them to watch rising stock and hoover up the cream and buy them out. There are a few acts I think would go a long distance if they had a publicity machine and a distribution network behind them, but I honestly don’t know if I would sign that contract as I am effectively giving up everything that probably makes my music and me interesting.

I am not sure at the other end of things how much we need them either. Every single musician on Twitter or wherever is one song away from making a global hit record. We have the greatest tool in the internet to project ourselves in front of everyone. No one knows how to do that, if they did the major labels would can it, and sell it.

But we are all just a step away from that. On balance I am quite hopeful things will be good going forward as there is a scene. As that great philosopher and scholar Kevin Costner once said, “..build it and they will come.”

If I’m honest the ‘Twitter scene’ feels like something no one has caught on to or even seen yet, like I don’t know, the new romantics, punks, Merseybeat etc before they became mainstream, but things have really started to take root on there. Whether things will happen soon or in five to 10 years is a different story but from the sheer number of acts I think it is just a case of time. The reason I say it could be 10 years is because I always think of Jarvis Cocker forming Pulp in like 1979.

The government could do more for the arts too, from schools valuing drama and music again, then you have the live venues and pubs. Maybe as we ‘kind of’ emerge from Covid having pubs charge 99p for a pint is a good thing, maybe not for the NHS though.

We’re all setting up home recording studios now so these places will have no business, but I do think sooner or later the industry will have to come to us. I genuinely believe that — and we’re going to be thankful — but also view it all with a bit of distain, exactly like the punks. But the mask slipped for the establishment a long time ago.

I think the sensible game for me is to keep trying to make a decent album every two, three years and see where it takes me. Ideally the bigger you get the more you can twist their arm to give you freedoms if the deal comes along. I wouldn’t sign with anyone though as I am aware only 3% of acts signed turn a profit.

And, I have to say, there is no indie music being broadcast in a prime slot of Radio 1. Some will say ‘Radio 6’ is the new home but that is just whitewashing the issue. Young people need to be made aware of choice. Radio 1 was also set up as a means to give music that wasn’t being heard to a wider audience back in the 1960s.

You and I have spoken previously about the need for a new ‘John Peel’ type figure, it’s painfully obvious, but I can’t understand why the industry in general continue to ignore our pleas.

We do need a John Peel character, he has been a devastating loss which the BBC hasn’t attempted to rectify.

The BBC, well firstly I must go through the motions of saying we are very lucky in the UK we have Introducing, Freshnet and Upload. I do have a lot of respect for Freshnet team and Upload but very little to no respect for BBC Introducing and I think most indies would think the same if honest.

I truly respect the BBC as an institution, but there is no primetime slot for unsigned music on Radio 1 full stop. There is no music program on the BBC TV channels now except Jools which means you have already ‘made it.’ These decisions are made by the governing directors of the BBC and bosses. They have forgotten Radio 1 was created because pirate radio stations in the ’60s were playing the stuff no one else was playing. Now how influential is the BBC when you consume through ‘on demand?’ It doesn’t matter. It is always important, and it is a public service, even if it is marginal, it is a route for people that are less well-off to have a voice and be represented.

I read an article where Tom Robinson was saying he played Lily Allen and the BBC didn’t really help as she already had a following on MySpace and was on her way to making it. Why play her? Her dad is Keith Allen. She has money. Your job is to play people that haven’t made it and don’t have much momentum.

This isn’t sour grapes, there is a big difference to having a dad who can buy you the best equipment and studio time to the single mum on a council estate who must graft for it and doesn’t know what ‘attack’ on a compressor is. I genuinely think these people have their heart in the right place, but they miss the point completely.

This isn’t me feeling or being ‘entitled’ either. I am not saying “play me,” I am saying “play more.” I get these DJs have a small slot of airspace and everyone can’t be played. But that net is missing loads of decent material. I think there is maybe an attitude of, ‘The BBC isn’t the only game in town,’ which is 100% true but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be actively trying to improve and change the current set up.

The music that is being played by inyourearsmusic internet radio for example is more relevant and open to the indies than the BBC unfortunately. Perhaps the BBC have their eye off the ball as they are too busy working out how they can make money from outside the license fee with channels like Dave and Gold. After all they must pay Gary Lineker huge sums to talk about football as that is ‘talent.’ Personally, I’d wheel in a few blokes from Wetherspoons to talk football and pay them in pints.

But again. The UK is lucky we have the BBC.

You released ‘High Vibrations’ earlier this year, it was the first time we were in touch. At the time, you told me you felt humbled when someone bought your music.

With the success of the album, have you got used to that feeling, or do you still feel the same way?

I feel guilty if honest. Not from streaming revenue as it is a bit detached, but from sales on Bandcamp.

May also sound silly but as I try and write the ‘third album’ and constantly pulling out weak material — rarely a decent song — it is dawning on me the amount of work involved in these projects, years sometimes.

I have no idea how I managed to write ‘High Vibrations’ and all the singles and B-sides around it. Even then I will feel guilty at the end of the process. Bar about four or five songs I think most of what I have created is a bit shoddy for one reason or another. Maybe that is to be expected when it is one bloke in a room doing everything and is a master of none of it.

I am surprised when someone takes the time to appreciate it. I have a different relationship to my music as I am the creator though so maybe I am being a bit blind. I am not putting out music for it ‘to be appreciated.’ I am just trying to create a decent piece of art for me and my pride. Like a painting. It is a hobby.

If I was putting out stuff ‘to be appreciated’ by others, I probably would have a lot less music released. But I don’t think I will ever lose that guilty feeling.

Somewhat connected to the previous question, I read somewhere you said the word ‘inconsistent’ would sum you up. Why is that, is it because you are constantly striving for perfection?

I do try my best. I am kinda an all or nothing person, you either do a job well or you might as well not do it at all. I think I say I’m inconsistent more because I am the jack of all trades and a master of none, so compromises must be made on what is ‘the best.’

I often do something really well and something really badly. One song the singing will be great but the lyrics terrible, another vice versa. It is what it is. I am capable at most things and have proven that in all the areas bar live performance. I can do graphic design, edit videos, run social media, write songs etc.

See I think most musicians are either in three categories. Delusional, gifted, or intelligent, and I think I am either intelligent or delusional. The jury is out. The musicians I know that are super, super gifted in song writing or live performance aren’t great at the others. They have very little social media presence for example. So, on balance I am proud of what I have achieved so far — even if it isn’t perfect. I believe if I had help along with ‘artistic freedom,’ I think I could go a fair distance.

You favour studio production over live performance, You do realise one day that might have to change as your popularity increases?

Hmm it may do. I guess it ultimately depends on what a record label — if I ever sign — would see as my strengths. I am currently happy enjoying my quiet life being an independent songwriter and a producer as I am fully aware I am not the best singer or musician. Touring does not bring much ‘traction’ either so currently I don’t see the point. It is a distraction from trying to master the recording process. I am still a long way from that.

A label only sees touring as a method of making a return from buying and owning you, not as a means to increase your popularity. There are some lucky ones in history that have escaped most of the hoop jumping like Harry Nilsson and Brian Eno. But this was the era of the album being ‘king.’

People wanted to own albums and not rent playlists off Spotify. You could get away with making a few albums per decade for the art and spending the rest of your time drinking Brandy Alexanders with John Lennon. I think I am making music for that era.

But assuming they are on strong enough drugs at Warner, or wherever, to throw the kitchen sink at it for me in a contract, and my traction is good enough for them to employ someone to sort my M&Ms, I am not shy, I think people know that if they have interacted with me. But the deal would have to be an offer I can’t refuse, said with cotton wool in my cheeks. I would need a lot of support as I am not ‘one man and his guitar’ and I don’t think my works are suited for that. For one I don’t write much on my acoustic guitar.

In the modern world I would be a massive cost for any label to get up and running so I would be surprised if the call came. Especially as they are lazy and don’t want to invest in anything.

And another thought that crosses my mind when I hear the word ‘touring’ is — and I will sound a bit mental here — in 10 years’ time when cities from Norwich to Amsterdam are getting regularly flooded by sea level rises, touring may be a thing of the past.

In a way what ABBA are doing with holograms may be the new ‘live.’ For me to tour, something special would need to be offered. Until then I will see how far I can get with the greatest communication tool we have: the internet.

And that wraps up Part One of John Michie’s ‘State Of The (Indie Music) Nation Address.’

Part Two will be available from Friday 31st December, with Enya, George Martin, Bono, Chesney Hawks, and many others all namechecked.

( Interview copyright LondonPeaky )  

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