David vs Goliath: An Open Letter About Music

kickstarters, passion, love, slavery & heartaches in a world where music is free...

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that music is a fool’s career choice. But that doesn’t stop me from aspiring to be a fool.

Music, for those of us who choose to follow it, is an addiction – sometimes close to a religion and at the very least an unshakeable passion. It is also the best friend and companion it’s possible to have because it very, very rarely leaves your side.

I experienced a brief period without music a few years ago when I had a breakdown following a massive life change and those few weeks reminded me of how vital music has always been to keeping me together, body, mind and soul. Looking back, despite all of my other losses – a partner, a home environment, a business model and a musical ally - losing music was perhaps the biggest torment I had to face at a time when I needed it most.

When I started to recover, the music came too. It’s difficult to sing through grief but it’s possible to make sounds by other means and gradually the music creeps back in because when you’ve spent your whole life with music it’s as much a part of you as breathing.

I don’t mind sharing this with you even though sharing a passion or a weakness can be difficult and can make us vulnerable. In fact I want to share it because I am beginning to believe that it’s this very vulnerability that allows the music industry to function in the way that it currently does, exploiting this addiction and passionate connection between artists and their work to justify low-pay, no-pay, ‘exposure’ gigs, free downloads and a whole host of other things that essentially force the artist into a state of what can only be described as ‘slavery’.

Marc Ribot addresses this in his song Masters of the Internet with his band Ceramic Dog.

A few years ago, Gillian Welch brought up the subject in her song Everything is Free on her album Time the Revelator. My own The Last to Understand from No.5 also explores the issue.

 “Everything is free now / that’s what they say / Everything I ever done / Gotta give it away / Someone hit the big score / they figured it out / that we’re gonna do it anyway / even if it doesn’t pay” (Gillian Welch)

“Our labor has no value! Content is our name! We are nothing but material fed into a machine to feed the Masters of the Internet!” (Marc Ribot)

I’m not moaning. Not really. Well, not much anyway…After all, I’m English. Stiff upper lip and all that…But I am concerned that the longer we allow this state of affairs to continue, the more we will drive down the quality of not only live music (forcing professionals to get ‘straight jobs’), but the other music that is available for us to consume. And I love music and want it to be as good as it can be!

Sure, the internet and the amazing democratisation of the recording process – garageband and the like – has made it possible for anyone to make passable recordings, for nothing, at home, and to release them into the wider world at the click of a mouse. This is a Good Thing. We can film bands on our mobile phones & post the videos onto Youtube with as much ease as we can lean across the bar to buy a drink. This is a Good Thing too…

I’m no luddite – in fact I think it’s bloody brilliant that the internet is so full of beautiful, available music! But the downside of it, as we all know, is that the internet is so full of smiling cats, sumo wrestlers playing snap etc etc that we’re essentially having to wade through ‘space junk’ to reach anything that is meaningful or capable of touching our souls in a positive and nurturing way.

At the risk of sounding high and mighty, it’s the search for meaning and authenticity that drives some of us to make music in the first place and it gets tiring to wade through space junk after a while...

With the ‘death of the album’ and the shortened attention span that goes with it, comes the saddening truth that most musicians who aspire to be professional can’t afford the luxury of professional studios and end up playing for friends as favours, for the love of it or for the odd hit of only-just-possible cash.

Let’s face it: living hand to mouth isn’t an option if you have a family to feed – or indeed if you yourself need to eat. And if you choose to live hand to mouth for the love of the music? I won’t lie to you – it’s stressful & I’ve seen many musician and artist friends suffering from depression and other mental and physical health problems as a result of the continuous pressure to carry on working and the frustration of having to work for nothing.

The industry knows that it’s onto a good thing. That we will all work for the love and to feed our passion for music until we all fall over…but who would expect a plumber to come and mend their pipes because it’s a job he likes doing – or a banker to get up and go to work 5 days a week with no pay…and there would be an uproar and strikes if members of any other profession were paid as little for their ‘services’ as the majority of musicians. We are ‘bullied’, however, in some part because we ‘choose’ or allow ourselves to be bullied…

All of the ‘old’ stuff we consume – the Bob Dylans, the Leonard Cohens and all of the consummate writers who currently hold such high standing amongst those of us who are passionate about songwriting – were able to explore music in a way that enabled them the time to make mistakes, explore their skills and to become masters of an art form that is capable of moving us. We’re lucky to have these writers to look up to and to learn from.
But whilst we’re willing to go out and pay hundreds of pounds to see these legends playing at this or that festival, the £3 to see a local band or the £8 to download an album doesn’t seem to be something we’re willing to reach into our pockets for anymore… 

I don’t want to have to remind you of this, but there will come a time when these heroes – the likes of Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman and other ‘stadium songwriters’ are no longer with us. And where will the new heroes come from if new artists aren’t allowed to develop their skills, to make mistakes and to ripen for longer than the scope the industry allows them – a timespan dictated by the amount of time their beauty lasts or until they are considered ‘too old’ to be eye candy anymore?

There’s a character on the cover of my new album I’ve invented called Rita. She has the head of a doe, the body of a pinup girl and the wings of a sparrow. She’s a distant relative of a creature in Native American folklore called the deer lady: a mythical being who lures men in with her charms only to trample them with her hooves. If we continue to be attracted to beauty over substance we’ll be in danger of a good trampling.

I’ve been making music now for 12 years and am about to release my seventh album – a full band album called Those Old Demons with my band The Hobopop Collective. I tried to record this album ‘properly’, at a great studio (Valley Wood in Leeds) and with incredible (and poorly paid) musicians whose credits include Richard Hawley, Homelife, The Pretty Things, James and Gogo Penguin.

I used some of the money generated by the lucky accident of my song Sandman being featured in Danny Boyle’s film Trance last year to pay for the studio time and to hire in one of my all time musical heroes Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello) to play for me on the album. I made the album like this because I wanted to make it in this way, even though I realise it’s possible that this album will disappear without a trace. Having been independent since 2007, I know that DIY bands who refuse to conform to genre can struggle to make an impact in a crowded marketplace with minimal PR budget!... But I can happily stand by this record and be proud of the ‘dream team’ I assembled and the great recordings that are certainly the best work I’ve ever produced.

Three weeks ago I started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the release of Those Old Demons. This is the second time that I have made an album through crowdfunding and I’m hugely grateful that there are people out there who believe in my music enough to back my projects. I was reluctant however to start the second kickstarter and I’ll admit the last few weeks have been a real rollercoaster ride for me & those around me.

I don’t like asking for cash – nobody does – and you need elephant skin not to feel embarrassed to be repeatedly pushing supporters and followers to back your idea. Even with an unshakeable conviction in the project. For anyone who struggles, like me, with self-doubt, it can be a really stressful process. You lose sleep and the relief when the campaign ends is incredible.

I’m delighted that the kickstarter has raised almost all of my £5.5k goal – there are less than sixty hours to go and there’s less than 10% left to raise.

This may sound like a lot of money, I know. Especially as the recordings are already made & paid for and considering the release is realistically unlikely to find a big enough audience to repay the production costs. I find myself going over the budget in my head and wondering if I’m being reasonable or if there’s anything I could strike off…but the crowdfunding site takes 12-15% of the total money raised and the rest will go into pressing CDs, vinyl, artwork, promotion etc.

It makes me ashamed when I think that all of these services are being paid for and yet most of the musicians on the recordings were being paid just £50 a day plus expenses to work on the record. It’s true that this was their choice. It’s also true that we’re all really, really proud of the results and a huge amount of love, care, passion and time went into making this album special…but the economic truth is that I have had to join in with the exploitation of musicians in order to produce this music. And that’s a state of affairs that makes me uneasy and ashamed.

Whilst I realise that nothing in this article will be new to anyone, I feel as though as a ‘conscious’ participant in the exploitation of artists I need to explore what it is that is going on right now that has led to the situation that we are in. Wise friends and colleagues speak of a ‘sea change’ and of a ‘revolution’ yet to come in the arts…but although we can hope for a Brave New World where there is the opportunity to be paid fairly for our work, none of us has yet come up with an answer to the problems we’re facing.

That’s okay. For now. But keeping open the debate and remaining honest about the process & the difficulty of music as a profession to folks outside of music will go some way towards spreading the word that, if we want to continue to be moved by music, we need to start to buck the system and support the ‘lesser’ artists caught up in this groundswell by backing small-scale live music, buying CDs, paying for downloads (it’s a start) and being patient when artists bug you to support yet another crowdfunding campaign.

Believe me, none of us want to bug you! We just want to work!

There’s no talk of a musician walk-out…yet…although it’s joked about after hours in dark bars over cheap whisky. Let’s hope we’re all fool enough to carry on making music in spite of the parasitic and soul-sapping industry we’re all fool enough to work in.

It is our choice to make music, after all!


Kirsty McGee is a singer-songwriter and member of Manchester’s Hobopop Collective. Her new album Those Old Demons, funded by kickstarter, will be released on her own label, distributed by Shellshock, in October 2014. Her video for the song Sandman by independent film maker Dan Ruiz, has had 87,387 views since its release last March.The Hobopop Collective kickstarter campaign currently has 139 backers with 56 hours to go.



Barefoot in Odessa

Barefoot in Odessa



Sometimes you're just walking down the street and 'twang', there goes your shoe...and it has to be said that walking barefoot in Odessa - or indeed in any city - gets you some curious looks.

So I hitched a ride from the Film Festival back into town and found myself realising that if there's ever a city I could leave my heart in, it's this one. I've never felt so surrounded by such wonderful architecture, such kindness or by such gentle, sincere and genuinely funny people.

Odessa, if I were wearing a hat I would raise it to you.

Saw two very different and fascinating films: last night 'The Best Offer' & this afternoon the Ukrainian film Paradjanov. Film festivals are great!

Anyway, off to explore & buy flip flops before tonight's gig...



Fritz & the Kiev Rebellion

Hotel: morning...
on lost luggage and piles of watermelons



Arrived at Odessa airport to be ushered into what looked like a large, plastic conservatory. This was the luggage collection room-or more accurately, the luggage scrum. Rather like a jumble sale where passengers fight to upgrade to that very desirable samsonite bag before it's been located by its owner.


A surprisingly irate woman official oversaw the whole process by waving her arms and shouting in Ukrainian. Whatever it is that she wanted us to do, it was clear we weren't doing it.


At this point we realised that some...in fact all...of our luggage was missing... There ensued a long wait to fill in forms followed by a swift car ride across town from the airport to the hotel with Andrey, our lovely festival chaperone who had met us at the airport.


Languorous bodies rested against cars in the warm night air and talked and smoked on street corners where huge piles of watermelons lay in late night market stalls, manned by bored looking melon sellers. Neon Cyrillic blared out from the corners of buildings and beautiful but haughty women picked their high-heeled way across pitted tram tracks. By the time we reached the hotel I'd already given my heart to Odessa.


Grand, palatial buildings with wedding cake icing sugar stucco line tree-bordered streets in the town centre. Fairy-lit plane trees and urns of delicate flowers give onto streets where flower sellers in outrageous princess dresses parade between horse-drawn tourist carriages. There's a delicious anarchy to the street scammers who have set up contraptions to raise money by challenging passers by to hang from their arms or capture wine bottles with fishing rods & win 200 hryvnia.


We found a street-side restaurant on the main street that was playing Louis Armstrong. The berry & cinnamon liquor & birch lemonade are particularly good.


One thing that can be said for having only the clothes you stand up in: never stuck for what to wear to the festival after party. We headed out at gone midnight to find a room full of live music & an enthusiastic crowd - Wednesday's stage for us - before walking back to the hotel.


We failed to find the sea or the Potemkin steps, but it's true that these things are probably easier to find in the daylight.


As for the missing bags? Quiet Loner has a theory that Fritz, my bruiser of a 1960s guitar I picked up in Denmark last year, led a rebellion amongst our baggage in Kiev and is currently heading for the German border...

I hope not. We have a gig to play.




Odessa International Film Festival 2013

Airborne: somewhere between Kiev & Odessa, 15.07.13

Some time around 8pm...

The day has two midnights: always make sure you pick the right one.

It's a horrible feeling to wake up and realise the midnight flight you were packing for has been and gone and that the other people on that flight are already in Odessa, Ukraine: which is where you should be...

It's a good thing that Ilya, Andrey & Julia who booked us to play at the Odessa International Film Festival are patient.

So...our flights were changed...Aside from a late-running plane and changing terminals at break-neck speed in Kiev, all has gone well so far. Still hoping our guitars had as good a journey as we did-we'll find out in Odessa.

The unsettling and highly amusing experience of suddenly understanding absolutely nothing- not even the alphabet-is worth the journey in itself. Surreal doesn't quite cover it...