Friends call out excitedly as Westminster Park takes the stage. Steve Murphy carries his guitar while his bandmates set up an eclectic collection of instruments. Two songs into his set one of his guitar strings breaks and the crowd erupts with laughter. “That was so metal,” he muses into the microphone as he switches guitars with the band slotted to play after them.
Steve and his wife and fellow bandmember Colleen Murphy, state that this show took place at their favourite venue – Aeolian Hall in London, Ont. It was one of the few shows that Westminster Park, a local indie folk band, charged admission for.
“If you don’t know a band and you’re being asked to pay $20 at the door, you’re not going to go in. But if you’re told ‘pay what you can,’ you think, ‘Well, I have five bucks, I’ll go in,’” Colleen explained when asked about a better business model for independent artists. “So it gets people in the door to hear you, but you also have the chance to potentially make more money that way.”
The couple both have full-time work outside of performing and producing albums. Over the past 15 years they’ve produced four albums, a holiday-themed EP and an album of Steve’s personal songs. Colleen described the changing music scene at the local and global level as a deterrent from making music their full-time gig. Moving from a work of passion to considering commercial viability can be anxiety-inducing and make the finished product suffer, she said.
These are some of many barriers. Small businesses and not-for-profits have become the backbone of the local music scene, hosting events that aim to fairly reimburse the music acts using business models that aren’t always employed in large-scale concerts.
A larger-scale organization that follows this strategy is the Home County Folk League, founded in 1974. Since then, they’ve been responsible for one of most well-known not-for-profit music festivals in London. Held in Victoria Park, it doesn’t charge admission. Much like Colleen’s ‘pay what you can’ model of payment, the festival encourages those who come to donate approximately $10 a day to keep the festival afloat.
It also considers another aspect of independent artist promotion that Steve Murphy describes.
“There are very few times that artists of different genres are able to play at the same venue or the same time,” he said. “The fans usually have to go, you know, ‘Do I want to go see a punk band tonight, like five punk bands, or do I want to see folk bands, or five rap artists.’”
The Home County Folk Festival rebranded to Home County Music & Art Festival in 2012 to incorporate more art forms and broaden its audience demographic.
Colleen is fond of events that combine visual art and music, such as Nuit Blanche, but she and Steve describe a lackluster engagement rate in the independent art scene at the local level.
“London is very stand-off-ish, as well. There’s not many people who go out with the intention of participating. They just wanna be spectators,” Steve said. While this is sufficient for larger artists who play at Budweiser Gardens to an audience of thousands, this can be problematic for a small band with no manager or record label to determine where and when a performance or album release will be most lucrative. Engagement is required to turn a profit if musicians have to rely on selling CDs or employing the ‘pay what you can’ business model.
Westminster Park benefits from a close-knit fanbase, which is great for digital album sales, but problematic for potential out-of-town or cross-country tours. It can be incredibly difficult to move an independent band out of their city of origin.
“It looks better that you have somebody who’s representing you,” Colleen said.
“With pre-existing connections,” Steve chimed in.
Managers can connect artists with festivals and venues suited to their style and sound. Certain music halls, according to Colleen, are terrible for acoustic shows, while others are great for a small and intimate performance.
Fox the Hound, an independent pop/rock band, has a hard time containing their sound to a small space.
The band found its footing on Western University’s campus. Third-and fourth-year students Jeremy Fox-Revett (singer, songwriter & guitarist) described his band’s struggle with self-promotion and making those vital connections to secure gigs and an income.
“When you play a show with someone and they get you on the bill, maybe try to get them on the bill [in return],” he explains. “Working together is much easier than trying to make it on your own.”
Fox-Revett relies on his bandmates to produce unique music that is heavily based in their scholarly classical music backgrounds. All four are current music students at universities in southwestern Ontario: Kenneth Palmer, the lead guitarist; Andrew Kosty, the bassist; and Myke Phillips, the drummer.
Rather than just a hobby, these young men rely on fair pay for their shows. Phillips drives in from out of town. Some venues within London are only accessible by car. While Fox-Revett is fond of the small, welcoming London music community, he says the band generally earns about $200 for a show. This of course is split in four.
But there are still advantages to staying independent.
“It’s all on your own time and you get out of it what you put into it,” Steve said. “There’s no one else that needs to get in the middle of that. It’s complete [autonomy] and I think that’s lent itself very well to us doing things on our own timeline.”
Another consideration for the independent artist in London is technology and production. Westminster Park works out of a basement studio that is accessible at any given moment, whereas professional studios must be booked months in advance. This would pose issues for creative minds who work instinctually over methodically.
“We try to meet at least once a week and rehearse,” Fox-Revett explained. “We’re hanging out, we’re making music, we’re ordering pizza because it’s usually on a Monday night and Dominos is 50 per cent off.”
Pizza money aside, a final consideration for an independent artist is self-promotion. In the digital age, posters have been replaced with tweets and word-of-mouth has become Facebook shares.
“We have this idea now that musicians need to curate their [social media] accounts… and make sure they’re making a following with that,” said Colleen. “But I think sometimes where that gets lost… is that it’s not even putting it into the thing you that you love doing. And it’s a creative energy, so it was kind of draining your resources.”
This is again an area that can be supplemented when an artist has the support of a label. Outsourcing promotional materials can reap great rewards, but a lot of that personal authenticity is lost.
As of now, independent artists benefit the most from partnerships with other local establishments and organizations. Book and record stores, campus cafés and craft breweries like London Brewing Co-op have played key roles in hosting and promoting bands at low to no cost. They’ll often supply their own food and beverages and defer to donations/pay what you can for entry. This grassroots support system nurtures a culture of community that is rarely achieved on a national or global scale.
“There’s this kind of ‘home’ feeling when a band plays… for your hometown, for your school, that you have a kind of special connection towards,” Fox-Revett muses. This sense of community is often the driving force for a small indie band. Bar money for half-priced pizza becomes enough of a reward in itself.