6 Music Festival: 'When bands smash guitars it breaks my heart'

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Ghana/Vela/Titlow/Louth

Page one of the rock ‘n’ roll handbook – historically given to artists on arrival – promises a life of sex, drugs and TVs being thrown out of hotel windows, guilt-free.

There’s very little mention of job insecurity, funding applications and how to market merchandise.

But these are just a few of the concerns for modern musicians wishing to keep their careers afloat in the streaming age.

Ahead of the 6 Music Festival in Camden, we spoke to four of the acts about the “chaotic” highs and lows of being in a band in 2020.

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Pooneh Ghana

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The Big Moon’s Soph Nathan (left) plays in another band, Our Girl, while her and bandmates (second left to right) Fern Ford, Celia Archer and Juliette Jackson have also worked with Marika Hackman

“Everybody knows it’s not the 90s anymore and there’s no money in it,” declares Fern Ford of The Big Moon.

“I went into music knowing the choice I was making: ‘Hopefully this will make me happy'”.

The drummer recently found happiness by playing with a box of “new toys” as The Big Moon recorded Walking Like We Do, the super-slick follow-up to their Mercury Prize-nominated debut album.

But having washed dishes and done various other zero-hour contract jobs en route to making her hobby her profession, she’s taking nothing for granted.

“Every time we do this it feels like it could be the last time. Because you just don’t know what the lifespan of a band is nowadays.”

The London-based four-piece are part of a new generation of artists who feel there’s “no place” anymore for the tired guitar-smashing “extravagance” of rock legend.

The most “rock ‘n’ roll carnage” they’ve been involved with was that time in Aberdeen when guitarist Soph Nathan accidentally stood in and broke a plastic bin.

“When you see bands smash guitars it breaks my heart, I hate it,” says Ford. “It’s like, ‘Oh come on, what a kid would do to have that’.”

Like many of their peers, The Big Moon pay themselves a small weekly wage to get by. This is taken out of “the pot” – aka the advance from their label, Fiction Records, and their publishers.

Once signed, the band were advised to step back from their day jobs in order to “throw everything at it”.

But when they stopped touring their debut, Ford began to feel “isolated” and so took up managing other bands while frontwoman Juliette Jackson was penning album number two.

“I have no idea who I am when I’m off tour,” she admits.

“You go from a chaotic life in a van all the time, playing the shows [with] no time to think… And then suddenly you’re off tour and you’re like, ‘What do I do?'”

As well as missing key moments in their friends’ lives, the band have had to invest their earnings back into the band. They’ve just hired “a proper lighting designer” to “visually represent what is being heard” on stage.

These expenses don’t come cheap and, with fewer people buying records, the merchandise stall has become increasingly important.

“It’s not just sitting behind the drum kit anymore,” laughs Ford.

“You start thinking, ‘Oh, maybe we should come up with more interesting newer merch’ designs, because that’s how you pay for things. That’s just the reality”.

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Neelam Khan Vela

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The Orielles are Henry Carlyle Wade, and sisters Esmé Dee Hand-Halford and Sidonie B Hand-Halford

Ford’s band will be joined on the bill at the 6 Music Festival by Halifax groove riders The Orielles, accompanied by a “special guest” bongo and conga player.

Their new album Disco Volador may sound like a blissed-out space party, but it was created in their new earthly base, Manchester.

“I think the North of England suits us,” says drummer Sidonie B Hand-Halford, who’s responsible for the group’s shifting time signatures.

“We’re not really interested in being a big hype band. We just really enjoy playing live and writing together.”

The Yorkshire group are keen “to travel to some new places” with their music, starting with the US next week, and are also “quite getting into doing remixes” of other people’s tunes they enjoy, as well as DJing. Producing bands themselves could be another potential future source of income.

The former film students have always known their way around a cinematic soundscape – they’d “love to do a Bond theme” – but confess they had “no idea” about the business side of things of the music industry.

Without the help of their label, Heavenly, Hand-Halford thinks they’d feel more at home in the pre-digital days.

“What it would’ve been like in the 70s or 80s is something we often think about because we do listen to a lot of music from that era,” she adds, citing Stereolab, The Pastels, A Certain Ratio and Yo La Tengo as influences.

“There’s been a rise in social media and promoting gigs online – some bands nail it – as opposed to just having a few posters and flyers in record shops. But I like the idea of that!”

To help them wrap their heads around this brave new world – and to ensure they get paid for live shows, radio play and streaming – emerging artists are advised to enlist the help of organisations such as the Performing Right Society (PRS), the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) and music licensing company PPL.

Claire Rose, outreach manager, for PRS for Music confirms a lot of acts heard on 6 Music and Radio 1 will still be balancing band duties with day-jobs.

“Creating a sustainable career music is a really tough one,” says Rose. “It’s a huge amount of work.”

The PRS Foundation helps to lessen that load by funding new musical talent and recent grantees have included Anna Calvi, Sam Fender and 808INK.

And despite the Brit Awards and major UK festivals, including Leeds + Reading, being accused of a lack of diversity at the top, Rose is optimistic there are opportunities for all on the way up.

“I think if anything it’s becoming so much more inclusive, which is great.” she adds.

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Dominic Louth/Universal Music Group

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Jack Steadman (aka Mr Jukes), Ed Nash, Jamie MacColl and Suren de Saram of Bombay Bicycle Club

Like Ross and Rachel from Friends, Bombay Bicycle Club were officially on a break from being indie rock heroes after wrapping up promotional duties for their fourth album, So Long, See You Tomorrow.

In the four years they were away, Brexit happened, and the various band members worked on solo projects, as session musicians and/or went to University.

Sticksman Suren de Saram, who spent time drumming for Jessie Ware, tells the other BBC he initially “struggled with the adjustment”, after having been with Bombay Bicycle Club since school.

“The four of us had never really experienced life outside of the band and we realised the four of us needed to kind of find our own feet individually,” he says.

“I think if we’d gone gone straight into another album cycle, that would have been the end.”

The Ivor Novello-winners’ galvanising new LP, Everything Else Has Gone Wrong, went to number four in January – no mean feat at a time when streaming sites favour solo pop and US hip-hop artists.

De Saram thinks Bombay Bicycle Club benefited hugely from taking a break, both “individually and as a collective”.

“We’re all a lot more confident and we’ve re-found that energy and enthusiasm and excitement”.

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Jamie Macmillan

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Sports Team’s Alex Rice pops down The Nag’s Head in Camberwell for a quiet half

Noel Gallagher recently stated there had been precious little to get excited about since the analogue “old world” ended – in a blaze of million-selling champagne-soaked Oasis glory – in an interview for the BBC Four documentary What Ever Happened to Rock ‘n’ Roll?

Another 6 Music Festival singer, Alex Rice from alternative rock band Sports Team, thinks Gallagher Senior is “way off”.

“You go to these shows and it’s just the most vital spirited movement I’ve ever seen,” he says.

Rice and his five bandmates have an “open door policy” at their new shared house in South London and launched their infectious and irreverent debut album, Deep Down Happy, with a short-notice gig at the pub down the road. Fans came from miles around for a night of unadulterated interactive millennial joy.

It only stopped when drummer Alex Greenwood “cracked her head open”.

“It feels like a genuine sense of community,” says Rice, who also puts on an annual coach trip to Margate for their fans, who even have their own WhatsApp group.

“They must have made a thousand memes about this album!”

In their spare time, Sports Team also run their own mini-label, Holm Front – a subsidiary of major label Island Records – and put out records by other bands including their Dutch pals Personal Trainer.

Another factor that could effect bands’ finances is the impact of Brexit. Last month, it was announced EU acts will need to buy touring visas to play in the UK from 2021. It’s not yet clear if bands travelling in the opposite direction will need their own visas, but Rice hopes that politics won’t spoil the “spirit of collaboration”.

His band are determined to “give back the feeling” they felt at their first gigs when they were 16.

“I do think guitar music had lost a bit of self-confidence,” he suggests. “When we first started playing our mates were like, ‘Oh I’m not going to a guitar music gig, I’m going clubbing’. Now it’s ready to erupt again.

“I think we’re all feeling ambitious and heartened by it. Why not Wembley? Why not Knebworth?”

The 6 Music Festival takes place in Camden from 6-8 March


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