Ian Stephenson, Musician, Newcastle-Gateshead
The following is based on a telephone conversation with Emma Webster on 14th November 2017.
I am a multi-instrumentalist playing folk and traditional music of Northumbria and Scandinavia. When I was younger I got dragged to folk festivals by my parents and at some point—the line between being a participant and a performer being somewhat blurred in folk music—me and my teenage friends, aged around 14, realised that we could use our parents’ friendships with folk festival organisers to get free tickets if we would play a little bit at the festival. I did that for three or four years, pretty much up until I went to university. And it was really exciting! I went from really loving it and being a fan to immediately being one of the in-crowd and getting to go to festivals for free, to then getting paid to perform at festivals like Sidmouth and Otley, where I got to meet some of my heroes. And they were festivals with a strong fringe element so there was lots of jamming and sessions in pubs. I won the BBC Young Folk Award back in 1999 when I was 17 and graduated in 2005 with a Folk and Traditional music degree from Newcastle University. I am currently the Musical Director of Sage Gateshead’s Youth Folk Music Ensemble. I also have a recording studio business and probably earn more in monetary terms from the studio than from doing gigs these days, as well as a little bit of teaching and occasional guest lectures at the University. The recording studio came about because of a rise in the number of people trying to ‘make it’ as a professional folk music performer. I started off doing good value recordings for friends and people that I knew and all of a sudden that became a business that grew of its own accord. Everybody who wants to do gigs now needs a profile and a recording and a promotional video.
Live and recorded music feed each other but live music is becoming more important, I think. It’s easier to get more information, more performances, video content and free music online of a band but with the decline in the physical act of going and buying and holding an album, I feel that when I see live performances, it feels like the audience makes a much stronger connection from the live performance, and is more likely to become a ‘superfan’ having seen a live gig, than experiencing any kind of recording or video. But, conversely, without the recording and the online presence then people don’t tend to be able to do long runs of gigs or to step into the scene as a professional musician. Most people will make some money from making recordings but as far as I’m concerned, it’s only supplementary to their earnings from live concerts, rather than the other way round, where you earned millions from your CD and the tour was just to promote the CD. So I think things are changing. Live music is more emotionally important and everything else is more ubiquitous. People are going to see less live music but when they experience it it’s more unique.
I am seeing a gradual decline in audience numbers for folk music. It used to be that on the circuit you could rely on a number of people who would go and see whatever it was on the circuit of regular arts centres and venues that are putting on folk music. Now it seems that you’re expected to and required to fight harder to get people to come to your concert rather than someone else’s. I’ve noticed that there’s also been a change in the kind of deals with venues where the risk is expected to be met by the artist more than by the venue. Venues are agreeing on a split of ticket sales from the beginning rather than a guaranteed fee to get the band there. It used to be the norm that you’d get a guaranteed fee—in some cases a healthy one and in some cases just to cover you getting there—but nowadays it’s just a split from the very beginning.
Professionally speaking, once I’d got to a point where I was making a living from this—while I was still studying—a lot of the tours I was doing as a folk musician were hung around subsidised or funded or council-run arts centres. Even today, some of these venues, like the Sage Gateshead, are still putting on folk acts at all levels of the folk scene. These venues allow you to play smaller clubs because they basically subsidise the rest of the tour and they enable you to do it without having to go down the official route of applying for funding for tour support. Because if you get enough of those places that will guarantee you a fee and they can use their clout to get you in, then the rest of the tour you can take on your own risk.
To have venues that are run by the council or get funding from the city is so important. It provides a direct connection between that funding, that venue, the people of the city, the culture of that music, and the personality of that city being cemented. And without any funding for the areas of live music which aren’t commercially viable … There used to be regional arts bodies in and around Newcastle like FolkWorks, who created amazing and city-based tours which would never have happened without the funding, and meant that everybody knew what North East folk music was at that time. Rural touring schemes need to be funded in particular. I always feel bad whenever I hear that a music venue has lost its funding. Once you get just enough funding from the city or the arts council or whatever then it allows them to take enough risks to build a rapport with the audience that allows the audience to take more risks on what they might go and see.
There is more information available to us, being pushed towards us via social media and it’s now more difficult to get a word of mouth buzz around a gig because everything is presented on equal terms and it all has equal weighting. It used to be that everyone would know which was the gig that week and everyone went, but you have to work so much harder now as an artist to get people to know about it and to come along. Once you’re there, promoting your band by playing a live gig just as effective as it always was. In general, venues are technically more clued up and you’re less likely to find a sound engineer who doesn’t know what he’s doing or a venue with very cheap equipment. This has meant that the folk world has had to up its game, in terms of the perceived professionalism of the performers. Using a PR person is now ubiquitous. Ten years ago it was only the bigger acts who were spending the money but now everyone is expected to have a PR person for touring and for album releases. It’s pretty much essential to have somebody involved from the music industry.
I tour to Denmark and play more gigs there than anywhere else. In Denmark, local venues like churches and community halls have access to a ring-fenced pot of money to put on cultural entertainment. Even if they don’t spend it all one year then they can still access the same amount the next year; it’s there if they want it. It’s easy to get: there is no long-winded application process, you don’t have to be a charity or a professional organisation, and you don’t need a list of aims and objectives other than just wanting to put on a cultural event in your local area. This works incredibly well. It means that if we’re going through an area and would like to play in a particular church then we can just approach them and ask if they’d like to put on a concert and ask for some money from the government. Sometimes they work brilliantly and you might have 200 people coming out to listen. You ring up and if the money is available then it’s a simple and beautiful way for it to work. In some of the other countries, the subsidy works in the other direction, like in France, you can apply to be a professional entertainer and then your wages are subsidised in the less busy periods. Musicians who can prove that they do enough cultural work in a year then they get benefits to enable them to produce art for a living even in the downtimes. As a result they have a lot of time to produce art. In the UK, you have to produce the product to get the audience in to make the money.
 It’s not because of the decline in tour support from record labels because there is no tour support from folk music labels. I only know about two bands in the folk scene who would get tour support. It’s more likely that you would get some tour support from the Arts Council or the PRS Foundation, especially if you are also ‘adding value’ by collaborating with different artists or doing education work as well as the tour, but there’s only so many people who can get funded in that way.