The Modern Musician's Blog
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Sep
04

I’m in an original rock band that has just self-released an album. It’s not stunningly good but we did put a lot of time and effort into making the best result we could. To promote it we booked a slot with some other acts at a well-known venue in my Kent hometown. Now, bear in mind that I turned down another gig that would’ve paid me £170 to do this unpaid one that actually cost me £30 in fuel to drive to. Silly me.

I turn up to soundcheck: the venue was open but almost empty, the performers load-in gate was locked despite the rain, there was no drinking-water backstage, I was 20 pence short of the price of a beer so the bar wouldn’t serve me it, the sound engineer didn’t know how to mic up a guitar amp and – here’s the kicker – the first band comes on and the singer announces, “This one’s about falling in lust!

Honestly? Falling in LUST?! Not even ironic in its delivery; just amateur and vapid. Admittedly in a bad mood by that point, I almost re-packed my gear and left but obviously couldn’t abandon my own group. Another band were sniggering at us backstage – I never bothered to find out why as my efforts to talk to them fell on stony ground – and they went on to play some uninspiringly bland rock which might have been ok were it not for the overshadowing ego that seeped from the stage like a giant dog’s fart. Some other middle-aged socially inept arsehole stepped right in-between me our singer who I was discussing our setlist with to ask if he could “borrow a tuner”. Mate, if you don’t own even a £5 tuner you shouldn’t be playing that guitar!

Our performance – thankfully to a now larger crowd – was energetic and well-received so I expected some banter and friendly chats afterwards. However, good-natured and well-meaning attempts to catch-up with old acquaintances were sometimes met with cold, awkward responses as their ‘small-town, small-mind’ attitude hindered their ability to alter their perception of me from the one they’d decided on years ago.

As the evening progressed, each band that went on played to an increasingly smaller audience as people weren’t prepared to respect the promoter or the performers and try to make a night of it. Apparently it must be SO exhausting sitting behind a desk the next day that going to work on slightly less sleep than normal is not an option, despite the bands giving their time and expense for an ostensibly collective endeavour. Although it’s no wonder that audiences decide to drift away if the acts have an attitude of stubborn, inconsiderate antagonism, each one believing that their tunes are breaking new ground. They’re not.

I left the venue feeling drained, unappreciated, disappointed, frustrated and definitely sure that the grass-roots live music scene in the UK needs to become more self-aware and cooperative or it risks becoming an endangered species.

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Jan
31

I’ve just had a first “rehearsal” with a group who are ostensibly a covers band. Of course, I’m always keen to jump on new opportunities for work, so I turn up with my bass, having prepared some material as guitar is my usual instrument.

It turns out that they’re just starting up the band, have no gigs booked, haven’t decided on which songs to do, are trying to write ‘original’ tunes in the same session and don’t have a clue how to work their equipment. Furthermore, they’ve hired a rehearsal room miles away that contains broken, mouldy gear and is accessed by a tight, spiral metal staircase, plus we had to wait almost two hours for the drummer who could then only stay for 90 minutes.

This is exactly the sort of shit that happens ALL THE TIME, especially in Brighton. Young people move to Brighton from all over the UK to supposedly pursue music careers but seem to spend most of their time in bars or making up lame, transparent excuses as to why they can’t make rehearsal, why they haven’t learnt the songs or why they will be ridiculously late. Most of these adolescent posers apparently make it their aim to be professional timewasters.

Here’s a tip for all the people that have let another musician down at the last minute: YOU AREN’T FOOLING ANYONE. All it takes is a quick look on Facebook to confirm my suspicions that you were out drinking last night and are now considering your hangover to be more important than the verbal commitment you made: to turn up and do what you claim is your job and passion.

Thus, you are instantly on my ‘dickhead’ list.

A muso lie is a special kind of untruth where it’s not even a creative or believable one. A typical example is “I just haven’t had the time” even though at your last gig together they told you “I watched all the [insert TV series here] episodes back-to-back this week… I love January downtime.”

So after three exhausting hours of gritting my teeth, being polite and helpful to this band, I could put it down to youthful inexperience. However, these people are students at the local music school! They are given all the advice they require (generic and limited though it may be) and STILL can’t get it together.

I suppose I should have seen it coming a mile away, but this is what happens when you seek work constantly and can’t afford to turn anything down.

Perhaps in future I should… maybe I could say “I haven’t got time.”

 

UPDATE! Just after I wrote this, I turned up to a singer’s house for a songwriting session. She opened the door – still drunk from the night before – in a filthy ‘onesie’ and threw up continuously in the toilet next-door while I was trying to set up the laptop. I was much nicer than I was justified in being, but I obviously left before starting any work. Do I attract them or what?

Jun
06

When watching a band at a pub/club/wedding, please observe the following: 

DO: 

1. Applaud at the end of a song if you enjoyed it. Clapping is a traditional show of appreciation and respect that seems to be dying out. Crowd enthusiasm also seems to now be inversely proportional to the talent of the band. 

2. Understand that we are not a jukebox. We know what songs go down well. 

3. Politely and BRIEFLY voice the fact to the band that you were adequately entertained at the END of the gig. I will be packing up my heavy, complicated equipment and don’t want to indulge your drunken rambling. 

4. Observe the stage limits and keep your clumsy feet and disgusting drinks away from my expensive stuff. 

5. Remember that musicians are NOT comedians, and heckling will therefore not result in a witty back-and-forth exchange, but rather in me thinking that you’re a waste of space and ignoring you. Whatever your joke is, I’ve heard it before… trust me. 

6. Have a drink, have a dance, have a good time. It is allowed! 

7. Tell us if you can’t hear the singer. 

8. Keep your opinions to yourself. 

 

DON’T: 

1. Stare blankly at the band or start talking to your friend after every number. Remember, clapping is traditional! 

2. Shout out the same “request” six times in a row. If we know it and have time, then we’ll play it. If we don’t know it or if we hate it, it’s not going to happen. 

3. Talk to me about my gear or how attractive the singer is. I’m tired and I’m NOT interested. 

4. Stagger over us and demand that we “give you a go” on the drums. I can tell by looking at you that you are a shit player and that you’ll ruin the gig for the next five minutes if we let you sit in. 

5. Ignorantly stand in our way when we are loading/packing away. I will crush your foot with my amp and pretend it was an accident, then I’ll laugh about it later. 

6. Go straight to the buffet after first dance, stay out of the room for almost the entire gig, then run back in for the last song – dancing like an idiot – and start shouting “more! more!”. You had your chance to see us in the first two hours. 

7. Grab the microphone. We WILL stop playing immediately and won’t resume until you’ve gone. 

8. Ask me what my “real” job is. 

Jun
06

At least once a week you will probably hear someone say, “Why isn’t there any good music these days? Why was music so much better in the 60s/70s/80s?”

Anybody asking this of themselves or others must bear the following in mind:

Every year thousands of new albums and singles are released. Estimates vary but this Billboard article (http://www.billboard.biz/bbbiz/industry/record-labels/business-matters-75-000-albums-released-1005042392.story) gives a figure of 75,000 albums in the US alone! If we assume that each one of those has an accompanying single that is also released, then we factor in the releases in the UK, Europe, Asia, Australasia etc, then we begin to get a grasp on how much music is constantly put out into the market.

Now; for a song to become a huge hit, it must generally be well written and performed and also connect in some way with a large amount of people, although these caveats CAN be mutually exclusive, as in the case of Whigfield’s “Saturday Night” which for some awful reason sold over a million UK copies in 1994.

Focussing just on pop/rock material for the minute, how many hit songs are there from each decade? Obviously from the 60s we have all the Beatles, Shadows, Hendrix, Motown, James Brown and Elvis records; from the 70s I can immediately think of Thin Lizzy, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Doobie Brothers, a few disco numbers, Stevie Wonder; in the 80s we had Duran Duran, Prince, Huey Lewis, Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, Sting & The Police; the 90s gave us quite a lot of sickly-sweet modern RnB that isn’t my bag at all, but at least they could sing (unlike Right Said Fred).

These are just some of the artists that come to mind when thinking of hit songs that EVERYBODY has heard. However, I couldn’t think of more than a hundred decent and ubiquitously famous songs, and that’s drawing from over 60 years of contemporary recorded music!

My point is that FOR EVERY HIT SONG THAT SURVIVES THE TEST OF TIME, THOUSANDS DON’T!

In every decade, the consumer has been swamped by mountains of complete crap that ends up fading from memory and public consciousness almost as soon as it entered it. From 2000, who remembers Aqua with their Euro-trash-pop-trance? Who still sticks Billie’s “Honey to The B” record on for a spin? This stuff will be forgotten completely in another ten years, and these “artists” actually stayed on the charts for a while!

All the releases that didn’t make the Top 40 are lucky to get noticed at all. Often that’s because the marketing was wrong, the budget not big enough or even just that the music was poor. We’ll never know, but we do know that the Top 40 is formulaic and generally of little artistic merit, so when something good does appear then it tends to stay there. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Thriller, Jagged Little Pill and Brothers In Arms are good album examples.

So next time you think most music now is shit, that’s because the majority of it IS, but it has always been like that. Time progresses and acts like a cultural sieve, sifting out the diamonds in the rough; the wheat from the chaff; the Muse from the Black Eyed Peas.

The best thing to do is find your own preference, away from the conservative dross of mainstream charts where almost every song is written by committee and auto-tuned to death.Don’t wait for history to tell you what was good!

Apr
18

Just to set the scene:

Serious musicians spend a great deal of time and effort (and usually expense) learning to be good enough to do what they want to do. Then, having made some headway on our instruments, we then learn that in order to actually get anywhere career-wise, we have to rapidly become networking experts.

This entails constantly ringing and emailing friends, peers and colleagues to tell them that you are available for any work going, even if it is badly paid. It also involves constantly seeking out new contacts so that you can do the same thing all over again. Additionally, at least an hour every day is spent trawling the internet for musical jobs and turning up such thrilling opportunities as “Guitarist/Vocalist with backing tracks wanted for 6 month hotel residency in Greece”, which is the musical equivalent of shelf-stacking at Tesco, or the even more exciting “Session player needed for studio recording. No pay or expenses but good experience!”

Yeah, experience of being arse-raped; I could get that in prison, and at least it would include a hot meal.

At the risk of sounding like a self-pitying griper, at least once a month I ask myself “Why the hell am I doing this?”, because it seems like one unnecessary piss-take after another.

This week’s drama has been no consolation either:

Having steadily built up a good reputation, dutifully performed all my “networking” for several months and gratefully accepted half a year of function (that means party and wedding) gig bookings, I relaxed a little and looked forward to spending more time on my OWN music, i.e. the stuff that provides a creative outlet and stops me from going on a mad killing spree. £2600 of saturday gigs is a good little contribution towards the eventual purchase of my own house, yes?

So when the agent – in a decidedly unexpected maneuver – decides to change their administration process, me and several other musicians suddenly lose all the bookings we have been promised, and because we aren’t contracted to the agent, we have little chance of recompense. Fantastic.

This sort of shit makes you want to sell up all your equipment and become a goat-herder.

Agents seemingly have to have a crooked nature to do their job. Rarely am I involved with one that does the job correctly. They either pay less than agreed, they leave out the “hot meal” clause in the contract so that when you get to the venue in the middle of nowhere, you have nothing to eat for eight hours except perhaps that emergency packet of peanuts that have been in the van since last year; or they tell you that any problems are someone else’s fault.

I remember being booked on a cruise ship and being told we were completely suitable, only to be dumped back at the port after two nights. The purser was furious that a “scruffy rock band” had been booked.

We won our court case…

A friend of mine also recently had a lovely experience when they tried to do a six week residency in Morocco. The agent hadn’t agreed the travel arrangements or dates properly with the client, so my friends performed just a few nights and then couldn’t get themselves or their gear home for two weeks. They ended up losing money. Some might say, “Well, they had a holiday, didn’t they?”, but a holiday is not so enjoyable when it’s enforced, stressful and not budgeted for.

Another group I know got chucked out of a Maidstone pub by a hysterical landlady after she realised that her bar takings weren’t going to cover the band fee. Rather than take the loss and honour the booking, she did her best to create a scene and scare them out the door without so much as a fuel contribution.

My party band has spent around £800 (that we can’t really afford, especially after this week!) on promotion this year, hoping to get gigs. “Musicians are all bums” goes the general aphorism: anyone reading this blog may have a slightly more informed opinion. Those two short hours on stage are the tip of the iceberg in many ways, and sometimes they really don’t compensate.

Feb
21

Things lazy guitarists say:

“I play for the SONG, man.”

“That’s just wanking. Nobody digs that anymore.”

“I don’t need that theory shit, it would make my playing sterile.”

“I don’t practice, it’s just too boring.”

“I only play indie/rock/blues/metal.”

 

Things naive guitarists say:

“My Line 6 amp is sounds great; it does everything.”

“I need a Floyd Rose.”

“All my pedals are true bypass.”

“I need to mod my guitar/amp/pedals/life.”

“I learnt this exactly from tab.”

“Jazz is just wrong notes.”

“It’s all about the modes.”

“How do I get [insert famous guitar player here]’s sound?

 

Things guitarists say to other guitarists:

“We should jam sometime.”

“Can I take the solo?”

“You’re louder than me.”

“Is that a real Fender/Gibson/Martin/Encore?”

“What amp are you using at the moment?”

“Do you need a dep?” (subtext is “I want your job.”)

 

Things guitar equipment manufacturers say:

“A super-fast neck profile.” – only as fast as the player, surely?

“Deep, tight lows; smooth, punchy mids and a crisp, warm top end…” – notice how these are all contradictions, designed to appeal to the largest possible demographic, much like a horoscope.

“Real-tube/valve sound!” – this is always bollocks.

“All the sounds you’ll ever need!” – a proper guitar sound would be a good start.

“You deserve the best.” – usually untrue.

“Unlock your tone with this!” – where was it before?

“Both vintage and modern sounds.” – this normally means a mid-scoop switch.

“Made using the best available components.” – yes, best under a certain price.

“Classic blues tone.” – I’m pretty sure that should be an acoustic.

“Authentic modelling” – another contradiction.

“Earth-shattering crunch/glassy cleans/crystalline highs/raw crunch/singing sustain/warm, buttery tone/searing lead sound/lush reverb ” – please… spare me the patronising hyperbole.

“Get the sound in your head with this!” – how do people you’ve never met know what you are imagining?

 

I wonder what piano players chat about?

Nov
17

1. If a piece of equipment says “professional” on it, it isn’t.

2. Get yourself the most horrid, useless and disgusting-sounding transistor amp you can find; a Peavey Bandit or a Gorilla, for example. Work on getting a useable guitar sound on this instead of your super-valve awesome-box. That way, you’ll be mentally prepared and won’t panic when you turn up to a gig and they cheerfully provide you with some similar piece of shit.

3. That mid range knob? Turn it up. But you’re in a metal band? Turn it up anyway. That bass knob? Turn it DOWN. The bass player has that area covered.

4. Nobody needs a Floyd Rose.

5. Nobody needs a 4×12 unless you are running a 200w head, in which case you are an idiot.

6. Things that are worth spending good money on – Power supplies, cables, strings, toolkit, soldering iron, speakers and pickups.

7. A couple of times in each set during a song, make sure to quickly reach up to your tuners as if you’re tweaking on the fly. This looks impressive, even if you’re already in tune. 😉

8. The guitar’s volume knob is your friend. Cultivate a relationship with it.

9. Play with your mind and gut, not your fingers. Patterns and boxes are for practice, not the gig. This is why there are good blues players and bad blues players.

10. Following from point 9… stay away from the blues unless you are old and black. Nobody wants to hear those same Eric Clapton licks they’ve been assaulted with since the 60s. Especially on Youtube.

11. You know how your guitar always sounds horrible through stage monitors? Put your ears at the same level as your cab – THAT’S WHY. Mic the very edge of the speaker, or turn the treble right down!

12. Line 6 have never made a useable amp, not even for use in point 2 above.

13. Practice on an acoustic.

14. Know the fretboard from nut to top! Chords, scales and arpeggios.

15. Record your gigs – nothing is a better or more revealing lesson than watching yourself perform. If it’s painful, that’s good. That means you have work to do.

16. You will NEVER achieve the tone you are looking for, because your taste is constantly changing.

17. Learn how to be both the only guitarist in a band (big sound, mainly chordal parts), and also how to work with another guitarist or keys player (contrasting sounds, different rhythms, inversions and space).

18. Working on your lead improv? Listen to sax players. Working on chordal playing? Pianists. Drawing the two together? Good luck with that!

19. A good drummer and bass player will make your job easier. Don’t use a muppet rhythm section.

20. Get off the internet! 😉

N.B. I have fallen foul of every point above… experience is king.

Oct
20

If some musician’s classified ads were honest:

“Hi there, I’m a 20-something timewaster based in Brighton, with no transport because I’m quite happy sponging lifts and never offering to contribute fuel costs. I own my own gear (inappropriate and badly maintained) but since I can’t get it to any gigs, then I suppose it’s not much use. My usual working method is to turn up late to a rehearsal or a gig, moan about the room within earshot of the staff, then make a few excuses as to why I haven’t learnt the required songs, despite being sent the setlist three weeks in advance. Anyway, I’m dressed in the correct fashionable attire, what does it matter? Sometimes I’ll take several overly-long cigarette breaks just to make sure the band knows that I’m not at their beck and call. I love to get drunk before I play because I have no respect for the band or the audience, plus it means that I can blame the booze when I fuck up most of the gig. Often I won’t answer my phone, or even a text message because I’m too busy sitting on my fat arse, claiming Jobseekers Allowance and waiting for the work to roll in because I’m so fucking great. That’s what my mates say, anyway. My timing is shaky and my theory patchy, and whatever you do, don’t point out any parts I’m playing wrong, because I can regress back into a moody teenager in 2 seconds flat. I talk a good game but am pretty clueless about how to work with other musicians. I’m hard to please but won’t go out of my way for anyone else. I’m also rude and uncooperative, especially to clients. So yeah, I’m looking for gigs.”

I WONDER WHY…

Oct
17

My contracts now contain the clause, “The Artist will not perform at any venue that has a sound limiter fitted.  These devices are unsafe and damage electrical equipment, as they cut out the stage electricity when they measure over a certain decibel level. The Client must enquire with the venue as to whether there is a limiter fitted. If the Artist arrives at the venue to find a sound limiter, the performance will be cancelled and the Client liable for the full fee.”

If you haven’t seen one before, a sound limiter is a small box that is fixed to a venue’s wall somewhere – usually and unhelpfully just out of sight for the band – and has a light bar displaying the volume of sound in the room. If you consistently push it into the red area, the electricity around the stage will be cut, plunging the performance into embarrassing silence and darkness. The ‘reset button’ must then be pressed, sometimes repeatedly, until the circuit comes back on. This sends a harsh jolt of current each time into your expensive equipment, which has already been shocked by the sudden drop in flow.

I’ve had one PA blow up (in Lansdowne Place Hotel, Hove) due to these horrible things, and seen a friend’s PA catch fire due to another one that was set at a ridiculously low level at the West Hill pub near Brighton rail station.

The supposed reason for sound limiters is that residential areas must be spared the awful noise and dreadful disruption of live music. How very English. The trouble is that these laughable gadgets make the musician’s life impossible. It’s hard enough getting gigs in the first place, let alone turning up to the venue to be faced with an irritating little box that penalises you for doing your job.

Bass frequencies are much louder in decibels than the perceived volume, so a reasonably loud bass player will push limiters into the red even without the rest of the band. This doesn’t seem to have been taken into account at the design stage. Nice work, guys!

Getting through gigs with a limiter is soul-destroying – the drummer has to use special sticks or sometimes brushes even if it is a rock show (one story I heard involved a drummer playing with his HANDS), the bass player is turned down so low that the audience don’t feel like dancing, and so the rest of the band are quietly struggling to sit on top of a ruined rhythm section. In short, a complete waste of time for the group and a disappointment for the client who booked them.

BOYCOTT ALL VENUES WITH LIMITERS – they are an insult and an unnecessary incursion on what is already a difficult job. Some fucker has gotten rich on this grotesque little scheme, so let us with one voice tell them to stick it. Amend your contracts to include the clause I’ve used, and eventually venues will realise they are losing business over it.

Steve

Oct
17

How beneficial are music schools, socially and musically?

Having just finished a three year degree at a well-known Brighton-based one, I have been thinking about this quite a bit. The music scene in Brighton is renowned for its vibrancy and diversity, with plenty of venues and – of course – many, many musicians.

During my time here however, I have questioned whether the saturation of the local market actually aids this or not. Thousands of young people move here, attend the music college and perform around town in original bands, at open mics and with function groups.

Many of the original groups are sub-standard. This is nothing new, but you would hope that studying music would inspire more than than lacklustre imitation of famous bands, and encourage more development. The more successful groups are able to grow beyond the local scene and tend to quickly disassociate themselves from the music school stigma, seeing it as perhaps embarrassing.

The venues pay nothing or very little to the acts. Hundreds of original bands compete for the same venues and are happy for the exposure, but their willingness to play for free (or even PAY to play!) does not help the situation. Attempting to book a covers band gig is pointless; the most you will get offered is £50 for the entire group. This especially rankles when you learn that they pay a fucking DJ £150, when all he or she does is turn up with a PA and laptop and press a few buttons. Paying a single person more for a less skilled and less entertaining version of the same job…

Musicians generally make bad audience members. Judgemental, stubborn and thrifty, they do not give each other the support they should. You can always spot musicians in a crowd – they are the ones with their arms folded, frowning or making constant comments in the ear of their friends, perhaps shaking their head when it is time to applaud. However, since the population of Brighton is comprised largely of students or musicians, this audience is the one the bands are stuck with. The upside is, if you’ve pleased these people, you must be either really good, or a bebop band!

The public impression of and market for live music could be in danger of declining. The instant gratification of the internet and proliferation of alternative entertainment such as clubs, Xbox and date-rape (maybe not the last one) takes attention away from the compelling and socially important aspects involved with seeing real musical performance. The Casablanca Jazz Club has a resident funk band that packs the place out twice a week, mainly because they are an extremely good band that knows how to maintain an exciting atmosphere. The fee isn’t fab but at least it is paid. This is the one beacon of hope in the wasteland!

The open mic scene is laughable. Endless dull and uninventive acoustic “songwriters” hoping to be seen by some mystery talent scout. I tried setting up a full jam night in a decent-sized venue, intending to attract the music students who I assumed would welcome the chance to play with each other (easy, now…) and network. After a few weeks, I abandoned it. The venue management was awkward and the attendance was low. These people that have moved from other areas of the country to supposedly study their craft, couldn’t muster up either the courage or curiosity to leave the house and play music with others in a relaxed and welcoming environment. This leaves just the solo-flyer acoustic crowd, boring people to death so that some tiny, shoddy bar can boost their takings on a quiet weeknight.

This brings me to function bands. The majority of music students seem to end up either in a suicide-inducing retail job until they eventually give up and leave town for home, no doubt declaring the whole exercise a “waste of my time” or similar, or they get involved on the function circuit. This is what I call the musical equivalent of shelf-stacking; playing 60s and 70s songs to unenthusiastic wedding crowds – keep an eye on my blog for a future installment of horror stories!

The music college encourages this type of bland, tedious, hand-to-mouth career option by suppressing individuality and promoting polished vacuity. Not overtly, but it does. It therefore completely saturates the immediate and surrounding area with mundane bands that all play the same material to the same mediocre standard, all vying for the same clients. I haven’t decided whether this pushes the standard of musicianship in this circle up or down, but I do know that many of the bands getting work do not deserve it and are charging for a shit, under-rehearsed product.

The institution I have recently left has made a consistent profit year-on-year and is now opening campuses in Dublin, New York and Sydney. I’m concerned about this. The term ‘sausage factory’ immediately comes to mind! Or more accurately, ‘cash cow’.

To sum up: One one hand, music schools mean that more musicians than ever before receive a well-rounded education regarding theory, the history of music and business acumen. They will also form a large part of the future music industry together. On the other hand it means a crowded work environment and lots of kids who think they know everything without ever having played a gig. As wise man once said (it was probably Popeye), “A little bit of knowledge can be dangerous.”

I must also point out that the music schools I refer to are narrow in their focus and distinctly different from institutions with heavy academic or classical backgrounds such as Berkeley or the Royal Academy of Music. At the Brighton college (name witheld throughout this article but you can guess), the syllabus is ostensibly one of ‘modern music’, but it’s really just a rock school, selling the promise of a dream that no longer exists. They don’t look at any electronic music, world music, orchestral music or jazz. This doesn’t leave much, does it? You get the picture.

Forgive the somewhat rambling diatribe, but the point is that a good business model isn’t necessarily good for music, the industry or the students. What a minefield.

Steve