People frequently talk about "the music business" like it is some huge, cohesive behemoth. A "thing", an entity to be railed against or admired, to be aspired to or despised. Of course, though, when you break it down, The Music Business is as many different things as there are people with musical aspirations, with many different nooks and crannies, a multiplicity of wide vistas and dark corners, and as many unsung heroes whittling away at its edges as there are big name superstars making the headlines.
By focussing in on some of the outer edges of "the business", with just a small and not even comprehensive look at some of the musical activity taking place in one reasonably small city outside of London, we've lifted up a few of those stones and shone a few lights into the corners. Want to get involved in the music business? Some of these dedicated folks might provide you with a little inspiration for some of the more tangential ways you could get involved.
Neil Jones looks after marketing, finance and box office services at Cambridge's 1800-capacity City Council-run Corn Exchange venue, as well as the famous Cambridge Folk Festival and a range of other outdoor events. Like most of the people we spoke to, he attests to having been "music-obsessed since being a kid." After studying Music and English at University (and working in a box office in his spare time) he went more or less straight into a variety of box office, marketing and press jobs at theatres, festivals and ultimately here in Cambridge at the Corn Exchange.
He advises anyone looking to enter the music business to "be clear about what your skills could be within the industry, think about what element you like and examine how your skills would translate to that role."
Others have different experiences and words of wisdom to offer. James Parrish - again passionate about music from an early age ("from my early teens, something flicked a switch, and music sort of took over") - now runs Prescription PR, a successful music PR company in Cambridge with 5 full-time staff, working with a number of independent and major label acts. He suggests anyone who wants to break in to the industry should listen to as much music as they can: "Put yourself out of your comfort zones, take recommendations and challenge yourself. This should never be a chore". Work experience, as early as possible and as much as possible, is also, says James, useful because it "teaches you what a real working environment is like."
He adds: "I think it's important for everyone to know that the industry does not have the financial rewards that it once did."
This view is echoed by many of the Cambridge-based people we spoke to. Simon Baker, who has been running the city's popular Green Mind gigs for the last 13 years, says that would-be promoters need to "be prepared for being skint," continuing: "I'd probably say that if you want to make a decent living from it then be prepared to scrape by for a while and put in a lot of hours. Same with any business start-up really. There are easier ways to make money though."
Nick Clarke (full disclosure: Nick is this writer's husband) has been selling records (vinyl and, latterly, CDs - even cassettes!) since the 1980s. He currently does this from his Cambridge home via the Rhythm Online website, and simply advises anyone looking to follow in his footsteps: "Don't expect to make your fortune!" He explains that downloading and streaming has undoubtedly adversely affected his business, along with "more people growing up with easy access to listening to music, without having to purchase the physical product."
Sometimes a career in music can come about via a tangent. Matt Redgrave is a skilled sound engineer, but he got into it "as an extension of being in a band. I decided I needed to know more on the other side of the stage." Ed Hine, the Cambridge Junction venue's Marketing and Communications Manager came from a background in galleries and museums, before starting out in a junior role at the venue and working his way up to his current position.
Steve and Hayley Pellegrini now run the popular smaller venue The Portland Arms, having jumped on the chance of combining their desire to run a pub with their passion for live music and festivals when it came on the market.
And then there are people like Dan Carney, member of Crushing Death & Grief: a DIY collective that bring some of the more left-field gigs to the city. Having put on gigs for more than a decade now, always as "a sideline, not a career", he advises that anyone looking to promote at this level should be prepared "to lose a load of money: if you can't accept you're going to have to fork out then you're doing the wrong thing, or for the wrong reasons." Despite this, Dan would always encourage people wholeheartedly to put gigs on themselves - as he puts it: "in a small city it can be easily the best way to see the bands you like live."
Cambridge-based artists that we spoke with echoed some of these views. Henry Barraclough is the singer, vocalist and guitarist for Forest. When asked if he would encourage people to follow his path in music, he says: "I would always encourage people to make music," with the now-familiar proviso, though, that "if you're looking for making money rather than having a good laugh, don't do it, it's a waste of time...". Minidisc shaman/grist-wrangler (as he puts it) Pete Um puts his musical endeavours down to a combination of "not knowing what to do and sticking at it, pathological abstention and disenfranchisement from 'normal' life". It's not a career choice, he says.
So how does being involved in the music business from outside of the capital affect things?
According to most of our Cambridge folk, the impact is mostly positive. While Nick Clarke makes the point that his web-based firm could be based anywhere in the country, and hasn't in fact been affected by his many address changes over the years of Rhythm's operation, even those in other parts of the business who you might think would feel more disadvantaged don't see things that way.
James Parrish says "I get asked this question a lot." He finds the fewer distractions of life in Cambridge, combined with its reasonable proximity to London, at only 45 minutes away by train (a point echoed by Neil Jones at the Corn Exchange) help him knuckle down and get on with the hard work of PR. The city's own supportive scene and music community (with venues like The Portland) also works to its advantage, he thinks. Neil goes further, describing its location as providing "the best of both worlds," with just enough distance from the capital to enable it to exist as a key regional area for live music.
Others laud the smaller venues and local promoters like Green Mind and Slate the Disco (Henry Barraclough) and being able to avoid of "some of the bullshit you get at London venues" (Dan Carney), or the ability to better develop your own thing away from the pressures of the capital's trends (Pete Um). Matt Redgrave likes the fact that there are no "cheap and nasty money-grubbing" pay-to-play nights in the city, and Simon Baker supports this view, describing the city as "less cut-throat, I guess," a situation that leads to less pressure, and possibly more room for new bands to develop and hone their craft.
On the downside, thought, promoters can sometimes struggle to raise a large enough crowd (and therefore enough cash) to bring a less well known band for a smaller scale gig, says Dan. From a musician's perspective, Henry thinks that the city suffers from a dearth of venues, and that more competition between venues and promoters would help to progress the scene. As Simon Baker puts it: "I think sometimes there's incredulity that towns don't have 500 venues to pick from and only a finite number of possibilities for a show."
As Steve Pellegrini reminds us, although Cambridge is seen as a big University city, it is actually "no bigger than a market town, and the tight control the University has on the land means there are few mid-scale venues for them to play in."
So what of the future?
We asked everyone we spoke to about the direction in which they thought their section of the industry was heading, and how their jobs were likely to be different in 10 years' time. The consensus was that technology and the internet would move things on even more than they already have done. In the world of PR, James predicts that tablet magazines will become the most important places to get coverage, and that firms like his will probably see more competition, as more and more people set up as PR companies.
Dan, too, thinks that the internet will continue to make communicating and checking out bands you easier, and Ed has already seen great changes in technology and how it helps us communicate, in the six years that he has been working at The Junction. He anticipates that in a few more years "pretty much all of our communication" will shift online.
Henry thinks that the battle over getting people to revert to paying for their music is probably lost. He sees bands making their money in future from gigs and merchandise, rather than the sale of the music itself. From the perspective of a music retailer, Nick's view is that websites such as his will become increasingly specialised - both in what they decide to sell and in their knowledge of what they deal in, to break down the barriers of online dealing.
Finally, what up and coming acts do this clued-up yet non-London-centric, non-metropolitan lot recommend as ones to watch?
Resoundingly, the answer we got time and time again was for Cambridge band Lonely The Brave. Described as writing "universal, anthemic songs" by James Parrish (who works with them), Neil Jones calls them, (as well as The Treatment), "superb", and they also get the nod from Steve at The Portland. Forest's Henry Barraclough rates Holden Girls, as too does Pete Um. As to non-local recommendations, Green Mind's Simon Baker picks out Melt Banana: "both experimental, and one of the most exhilarating live bands I've seen," and Courtney Barnett: "the Australian, female Jeffrey Lewis. Ace lyrics." Ed at The Junction puts forward John Grant and The Pictish Trail, Nick at Rhythm picks Fat White Family and Teleman, and Dan Carney is currently enjoying Antidröm, for their "exciting analogue electronic stuff... use of space and unorthodox sounds and rhythms," and the "fun jangly pop" of The Centimes.
As interesting, un-parochial and mixed a bag of tips as you would hope to find from a savvy and informed group of people in the business at whatever level and in whatever aspect. So what conclusions can we draw? Well, perhaps it really is just something as simple as following your passion. If you want an involvement in the music industry - be it full-time career, part-time money earner, way of life, hobby, whatever - you can make it happen. Just watch out for the every-changing effect of the pesky worldwide web, and don't expect to be putting down a deposit on a yacht (or indeed, even an apartment) any time soon.