Inflation Has Wrecked UK Musicians’ Ability To Make Money

Indie rock frontman Sam Griffiths has made a spreadsheet listing the costs of his band’s upcoming tour of Europe. It is a long list.

“Petrol: £750. Merchandise: £2,000. Euro crossings: £400. Van hire: £2,700. Accommodation: £3,500 …”

The running total climbs to £24,990. Meanwhile his income adds up to £14,664, after his agent’s deductions. “I haven’t included little expenses we won’t see coming,” he says. “I’m having to work really hard to make sure that everyone gets paid.”

This kind of admin would normally be done by a tour manager, but Griffiths wants to avoid adding another fee to his nicely formatted document. “My day job is administration for the NHS, so I’m a dab hand at Excel.”

Griffiths, 31, didn’t always have a day job. His Leeds-based band, the Howl & the Hum, was signed to the distribution service AWAL in 2018, with an advance of £200,000. It was an exciting time. They sold out two tours and performed at South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Before 2022, he was taking a wage from the band. “Then we basically ran out of money.”

The band released their first album in May 2020, which was hampered by Covid restrictions. “It was a lousy situation. We had to rely on digital means to promote it. After that, we went our separate ways and now it’s more of an expansive solo project. We all got day jobs.”

Managing the finances of the band in its new incarnation has been no easier. Adding to Griffiths’ stress is the ATA carnet – essentially a passport for goods – that will require him to itemise every single piece of equipment that he’ll bring to Europe. “The first time we did that was the most ridiculously annoying thing. We had to take scales and weigh each lead, each guitar pedal, each speaker, everything. And it costs about 750 quid.”

PJ Johnson’s band, Bug Teeth. Photograph: Georgia Zimmerman/Guardian Community

More than 100 musicians wrote to the Guardian with similar stories after the band English Teacher said that they have never turned a profit from touring. Some of these bands said regular tours abroad aren’t viable at all.

Elsewhere in Leeds, PJ Johnson’s alt rock band Bug Teeth have done well for the last five years, selling out several headline shows and performing on three UK tours. That is, if you don’t count their bottom line.

“We still don’t make enough money to record or tour as much as we need to become more widely known. Everything we earn goes on petrol and accommodation. We try to stay with people we know so we’re not having to fork out for Airbnbs all the time,” says Johnson, 24.

In April 2023, Bug Teeth recorded three songs, costing them £1,500 including accommodation. “We only made that money back last week,” she says. “I see a lot of people who are forced to use advances from labels to pay for production, while knowing they’ll never make that money back.” Alongside her gigs, Johnson works as a copywriter. “Most musicians I know work full-time, which means no one has enough time for music,” she says.

“Music labels, even if they’re small, still have such a hold over artists who can’t afford to pay for production themselves. You’re always owing someone something.”

Fiona Fey. Photograph: Bryan Taylor/Guardian Community

Fiona Fey, 35, a London-based folk musician, records and practices in her flat when possible to save money.

“In my previous flat I was served a noise abatement notice by the council for practising for two or three hours every day. And that was really difficult because I couldn’t afford studio space. It’s like £7 an hour, which becomes a huge expense.”

One of her bands previously performed on tours subsidised by the Arts Council. Since this dried up, Fey no longer gigs in Europe as often as she used to.

“Brexit had a massive impact. We used to do festivals in places like Italy and Spain. They pay musicians better there. In England, venues won’t provide food. But over there, it’s just expected: you give them a place to stay and you pay them properly because they’re doing a job. But it’s not the culture here.”

Dean Glover. Photograph: Debbie Ellis/Guardian Community

Manchester-based producer Dean Glover has been recording music for 10 years. “When I started,” he says, “musicians could live comfortably and have the spare money to put into their music. One thing that’s changed is that there are some artists I work with who work a 9-to-5 minimum wage job, and they will literally forfeit meals or necessities for that week if it means they can continue putting money behind their music.”

Glover, 35, is concerned that these musicians are being priced out of career success. “I’ve seen it myself many times – a band with all the flash equipment, with the van, with the crew, with all these opportunities, and that’s just because their financial background has enabled them to pursue it.”

For Glover, who works with about 50 bands a year at his studio in Cheetham Hill, business is still healthy enough. What hasn’t changed, he says, is their desire to record music. “They still want to pursue a career. Even when there aren’t many opportunities for funding, or a clear path to success, they still want to invest in it.”

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