Will the 21st Century work?

10th March 2013

Retirement planning

Trevor Locke (the author of this blog) has announced that he will ‘retire’ in August 2014.

Being clear about some things,  he has begun the process of downsizing his business commitments.

He will however continue to be available to provide consultancy services up to and beyond his official retirement date.

The economics of ageing in the twenty-first century.

Over the past few months I have been following the media’s preoccupation with the “baby boomers”. Being over 60, I am facing up to the challenges of not being classed as in my ‘prime’ any more. As current policy goes, I am in fact only a few years away from retirement age. What weighs on my mind however, is that by the time I reach 65 they will have moved the goal posts. I will have to wait till I am 70 and who knows, by then, they will have probably dismantled the goal posts altogether.

I am most probably part of the work-till-you-drop generation. Retirement is just a passing phase, in the broader historic scheme of things. My grandfathers worked till they dropped and retirement was a luxury afforded to post-war generations but, as an economic concept, its looks it’s being consigned to the museum of history.

What do we do? With a labour market that is almost universally geared to people aged between 21 and 31, people in my age group are struggling to find any kind of employment. Despite the government’s blandishments about the need to employ older people, the recruitment industry just does not want to know.

This is why I am building my future around self-employment, where age does not matter. After 45 years of working life, I consider myself to have a broad range of knowledge, skills and experience. Try telling that to HR consultants. Fortunately I now include. in that work profile, over 15 years experience of running my own businesses.

Several things have got me thinking about the future of work. Notice I use the word “work”; part of my vision of the future is that “employment” is likely to follow “retirement” into the graveyard of economic history – at least for a very sizeable segment of the population. The 21st century is going to see a sea change in how people earn a living. Large sections of the population are going to have to get into self-employment and running their own businesses, for no other reason than that is the only way they can avoid destitution and poverty. We are entering the age of the “sole trader”.

We saw the rise of the Entrepreneur in the industrial revolution, the rise of the capitalist and then the rise of corporate man. All that is now waning and the age of the sole trader is upon us. Company pensions are going to be a thing of the past and indeed several people have said recently that they have given up on the idea of a pension and prefer to invest in more secure containers for their wealth.

It’s an issue that government policy analysts are wrestling with. Western capital has moored itself to the rock of the pension funds, only to find that they have secured themselves to rocks that are beginning to sink to a watery grave, where they will find themselves gathering incrustations alongside the wrecks of “banks” and “building societies”.

In the meantime, my ship of private business is sailing into the new dawn of the twenty-first century economy. Those who are 55 and over, should be thinking about their futures as working men and women. Those futures are going to be self-determining. We are exhorting our children to start paying into private pension funds as soon as they start work, planning for a life-time of saving for their retirement. Don’t. It’s basing their future on the here and now. Not a good idea. Occupational pensions will soon become a thing of the part. Whether private pensions can replace them, remains to be seen. I ask myself this question: if you are not going to retire, why do you need a pension?

I would rather see the nation’s parents exhorting their offspring to go on business courses, so that they have the basic skills to go it alone, if they find themselves bereft of “employment” (a not-unlikely scenario, in my view.)

Tax strategists will have to start thinking outside of the box. Post-war society never had it so good because the state could easily collect its revenues from bulk employers: the corporations that could maintain an army of administrators to tax the work force and send the cheques to the Treasury. Very cost-efficient for central government. It is now not where things will be in the future. PAYE’s contribution to Treasury revenues will go down. Income related taxation will increasingly be based on self-assessment tax returns.

There might well be big corporations for the rest of our life-times but they are likely to be populated with contractors rather than employees. The relationship between entrepreneurs who run businesses and their work-force is changing. The old-style PAYE employment scenario is being replaced by a hire and contract approach. This will change the way working people are recruited.

I am seriously thinking about the amount of time I spend submitting my CVs to companies. My four hours a day of laborious sifting through vacancies could be better spent raising my profile in the market place. So, if you’re the MD of a recruitment agency or a jobs web site, take my advice. Plan for the future and re-engineer what you are doing. Your business is likely to find itself resting alongside the wrecks of the pension funds and banks. Jobs are out, contract tenders are in.

The old order is waning. We just need to stand back far enough to see the bigger picture and look for enough head to see the direction in which the world is heading. Listening to a social media guru tonight, I heard her say that she stopped bothering about getting herself listed on job web sites and concentrated on making herself “be found” on the Internet. Now, people phone her up to ask her to work for them. Much better. That is where I need to be.

Recruiters now should be searching for people to hire. If you want a particular type of person, someone with a distinctive profile, you should be out there looking for them. The time when we applied for jobs that were posted on recruitment web sites is passing into the shadows of history.

Employers, in this future world, will not be advertising for staff. They will be out there searching for people who have put their offer, their CV, their profile on the Internet and are waiting to be found. Age is not important. It’s a complete red-herring (just as is, gender or race.) If you need people with the right skills for the job, go out and find them. As tonight’s speaker said: “NEVER put your real age on a profile.” I totally agree and we both understand the reasons why this principle is of prime importance.

For me, it is mainly to do with identity theft, where date of birth is the key to getting the rest (I know from my years of doing genealogy.) I have decided not to put my age on my CV and I am busily deleting information that will give a clue to my age. If they are going to judge my application using age as a factor, I don’t want their job, I will just press the next button.

Earning a living

So, what am I going to do that will earn me a living and be consistent with my knowledge, skills and experience? I am going to work (notice the lack of the work ‘job’) for companies who can make money from people like me and share the benefits with people who want to work with them rather than for them. Forget the pension, the PAYE, the office, the set hours of work, the employment contract, the annual leave package. These are already legacy . Ah! I can hear some of you whingeing already about the loss of annual leave. Well when you work for yourself you arrange your own holidays. You decide how much holiday you can afford, when you want it and where and how you want to take it.

Wave good-bye to the concept of annual leave, conditions of service, benefits (such as the company car), the corporate credit card, health plans and all the other trappings of post-industrial corporate life. If you want something, earn the money and buy it yourself.

Sole traders

I did talk about “sole traders” earlier didn’t I? Well, it’s interesting that many of the people who are on the long march into the new economy are working together. Yes, they are still sole traders but they seeing the opportunities of working alongside other sole traders, in business pods, even in project swarms. Being a sole trader can be lonely and isolating. Until you discover all the other people who are in same situation and suddenly realise that if you all work together, you can be more than the sum of your parts.

Disheartened? Frightened? Filled with foreboding? I’m not. I am excited about the possibilities and the opportunities to show what I can do with my 45 years of experience.

What makes a good live music scene?

13th December 2010

Having just got back from a really good meeting of the Leicester Music Collective, I thought I would commit a few words to paper. Well the digital version of paper maybe.

The nub of the meeting was talking about how we put more bums on seats.  Leicester has seen a massive increase in the number of live music venues and consequently in the number of gigs happening, week in and week out.

Promoters, venue owners and other industry movers and shakers are scratching their heads about how we should try to get more people to come out to support live music events.

We are all passionate about live music. We want to see more people attending gigs because we believe it is a really great way to spend an evening. But how do we do it?

One solution that is being delivered, is to print a monthly listing of gigs across all venues and distribute it as widely as possible. I support this. Even though I spend a lot of my working day pushing out information about gigs –  on the Internet – I realise that there is still a proportion of the population who do not go on the ‘Net every day. Even if they do, they tend to use it just for e-mail and don’t spend time surfing the web sites and social media outlets where they could come across info about live music.

If you do want to know about gigs or bands or music, you don’t have a problem finding it on the ‘Net.  If you might possibly want to go out and ‘see a band’, incredibly it can be difficult to find out what is going in this city. If Leicester has a problem getting the word out about gigs, it’s also likely to be the case that other cities have the same set of issues.

Distributing flyers that list gigs is one part of the solution and a lot of people said a lot of things about the practicalities of making this happen. Happily, someone has made a start on it and a listing is being produced.

Leicester has a profusion of live music venues; it has a huge supply of bands and artists playing every kind of music you can imagine. Live music has been a feature of Leicester life for decades.

There was some really interesting analysis about the impact of the BIG music society on tours, venues, ticket sales and festivals. Interesting though that is, my focus now is on amplifying the crowd for the small venues and the unknown, unsigned bands.

Someone pointed out that people will pay £20 to £40 to see a band they really want to see. Getting people to pay £5 to see bands they haven’t heard of, is much more difficult. But this is precisely where I operate and that for me is the major challenge.

Everyone agreed that it’s about getting the information out there; whether we use high-tech fixes or plain paper solutions, we need to make sure people know about what is happening, where and when.

On top of that there is a harder task of ‘selling’ unsigned, live music.  Why would anyone want to pay £5 to see a line-up of bands they have never heard of  before? Well, after two years of going to gigs, seeing hundreds of new bands and writing about many of them, I really feel passionate about live music. In a world increasingly dominated by recorded music, the difference between the two is immense. For me, live is the best. Live is what brings music to life. I don’t just want to  hear it. I want to see it.

But can I sell that idea to people who just want to plug themselves into their iPod and think that is what music is about, full stop?

I want to shout about the live music experience. I want to convince the public that live is an unbeatable form of entertainment. I want to convince people that going out to a gig and seeing bands playing is much better than watching it on TV or listening to music through ear plugs.

This wonderful group of people which has come together in Leicester has started to take that whole issue on board. The discussion however has focused too much on the supply side and not enough on the demand side of the market.

They did come up with the idea of doing a survey; asking people who go to live gigs what they think about things like: the venue, the ticket price, the transport there and back, what they like best and dislike most about shows and so on and so on.  That is good; we need to know much more about the punters, we need to keep asking questions that might help us to figure out the quality issues posed by live shows.

The other side of the equation is the bands.  This needs to be on the agenda. In live music, everything is driven by the bands, at the end of the day.  They are the people who make the music. But how do they contribute to making a local live music scene a success?

I am really looking forward to that debate. I already know some of the things that will get said:  what bands thinks of venues and promoters and vice versa. In Leicester, there is an almost endless supply of young men who want to play guitars on a stage. Sorry girls, but the ratio is about 20:1. I have lost count of the numbers of male musicians but I can count the female players of guitars, bass and drums on my fingers. Same is true of vocalists.

I have asked many questions about how bands write music. Who writes the songs, who makes the melodies, how do they choose what style of music they will play, what influences move them, do they ever think about what they look like on stage … and the answers are all invariably the same.

Musicians follow their own musical instincts. When four guys get together, assuming they gel together on the music, they will produce for their band, what they have had as a musical career, what they have grown up with, it’s all about their tastes, their musical passions, their sense of what works.

Ok, I hear you say, but that is also true of every other art form. It’s so obvious it’s hardly worth thinking about. But I also hear musicians talking about wanting to be successful, of making it in the music business.  Having talked with band members (for a few years) about this very subject, I know how difficult it is to get them to think outside of the box.

If a band has real talent and makes music that is good enough for people to pay to hear, what else do they need to do?  Sadly it is not all about the music. Of the 250+ rock bands in Leicester that write their own music, only a tiny few will ever stand any chance of making  it in the world outside. Are they the ones that have their fingers on the pulse of modern music and happen to be writing the best songs?  Not necessarily. There’s a lot more to it than that.

I’ve written about the ‘bands with no fans‘ thing before. I’ve talked about how bands can promote themselves. I’ve gone on about putting fans on floors. It’s still amazing to hear unsigned bands complaining that promoters are not providing them with big enough crowds.

It’s amazing because there is still a lack of ‘mojo’ about what makes live music work. Even if all promoters and venues did a perfect job of promoting shows, it’s still obvious that it is the bands who have the fans. It’s the band who has to put feet on floors. They are the ones who know who their fans are.

It’s incredibly difficult for promoters to sell tickets to the fans of a band. Even though MySpace, Facebook and Twitter are the most immediate conduits to the fans of a band, it’s not easy for promoters to message those people. Bands are not going to hand over their log in details to a promoter and say – ‘ok here are all our fans, you talk to them.’

Promoters can fire out marketing messages to the general body of people who might like  live music. We can put stacks of flyers into what we think are the right places. But the ones who are most likely to turn up at the door, are the people who already know that band. Access to those people is restricted to the bands themselves.

I don’t want to get started on the issue of ‘pay to play’ but the reason that hoary old chestnut won’t go away, is that for many venues and promoters it’s a solution that can work.

In a nutshell:  the promoter sells tickets to the bands. The band members then sell them to their fans. It can and does work but there are many band members out there who do not like it.

Some festival tickets can cost between £20 to £30. If you have to sell, say, 50, that’s £1,000 to £1,500.  For most small bands that’s a load of money to worry about.

Even so, I have heard bands say that they would be willing to pay that kind of money to get on to certain festival stages.

I’m not condoning this; I am just recognising that it happens. If it’s not part of the solution, it’s certainly part of the problem.

If bands want to be successful, they have to play music that people want to hear. They have to put on a performance that people want to see.

They might well have to compromise on their own personal tastes and accept that there is more to being a successful band than self-indulgence.

Moreover, they also have to bear the burden of winning, keeping and organising their fan base, promoting themselves, getting their name known and constantly tapping music industry people on the shoulder.

It’s great to hear stories like “oh, we had this box of 400 CDs and we had to sit down and listen to them all and decide which ones we wanted to sign up.”

As a music writer I sit in the middle of all this and hear both sides of the story. If we want more feet on floors in Leicester then both the promoters and the bands have to work together to achieve that.  No one has the exclusive power to win ticket sales.

We all agree that live music is the best music and we all want more people to join in and enjoy it.  We are only going to succeed if we all work together.

That ‘s what these meetings are about. Not why, but only how and to a lesser extend who.

What makes a good gig?

In Leicester, it’s not about playing at a particular venue, that bookings are about, but finding the right line-up to play in.

All the main venues have their good nights and their bad nights. A good night is when a reasonable number of people attend (40+). That can happen at any venue on any day of the week, but only when the line-up is right. A bad night is where a set of bands fails to draw a crowd and they end up playing to each other. That happens a lot and the sad thing is that it keeps on happening.

Someone is making the same mistake over again. It could be the promoter, the venue or the bands or all of them together. But when it does happen everyone looses.  So why don’t they get it sorted and stop putting on nights that are bound to fail?

It would be better if there were less gigs but more good gigs. Music producers fail to co-ordinate their shows with each other.  They all work in isolation.  They do what they want to do – when they want to do it. In my view, everybody looses in this scenario.

At the root of this problem is the fact that there are just not enough ticket-buying fans to go round. We live in hard times. People do not have enough disposable income to allow them to go out to live music events that often.  Too many shows chasing too few people. It’s a problem that everyone recognises but which there is an in-built reluctance to do anything about.

Many people around here have commented that some kind of live music coordinating forum just might help the local scene to plan its programmes more effectively. What would help to move this forward is a few music producers getting it and giving some thought to how to make it happen.

One last word:  if you must put on a live gig, choose the right line up!  Don’t book bands willy-nilly just because they say they are available. Well constructed line ups will attract a better crowd than a random selection of bands playing a hotchpotch of musical styles. It seems so obvious. Why then does this still happen?

An X Factor for Bands?

Originally published as a post in the Artsin Blog 13th December 2009

Each week I have been watching “The X factor” and in some way have learned a bit more about musical entertainment. At the core of this competition is the idea that an act can have an identifiable set of characteristics that marks it out from the rest. It’s called the “X Factor” because the “stand out” characteristic is hard to define. The TV show is a singing competition. It does not feature acts that play music instruments, as well as singing.  There are however tens of thousands of unsigned, original bands in the UK and a TV show featuring these bands would attract a large audience.

If you are someone who works in the music industry and have the right experience (record label scout, top recording artist, band manager, show promoter, etc.) you will know it when you see it. So, are we any closer to defining this mysterious “X factor”? If we pull together what the four judges (from the TV show) have said about the acts that have made it through to the finals, there are clues as to their thinking about what characterises this elusive factor. Any act that has what it takes to become a
top star:

  • must be able to project his or her personality into the songs and must be able to make a song come alive by living the mood and meaning of what the song is about, fully expressing its emotion; simply being able to sing the song in time and in tune is just karaoke. There are singers that have good voices, who can sing in tune, remember all the words and who can deliver an acceptable standard of performance but who have been labeled “club singers”, “wedding singers”, etc. Whilst such acts are capable of making a living from singing and can entertain the average crowd they will not get signed to serious record labels and rise to celebrity stardom. These artists do not have the “X factor”, however technically competent they may be.
  • Be reasonably good looking. We can all debate what this might mean and point to top singing stars who (in our personal opinions) are not (all that) good to look at. But the judges have frequently referred to the looks of an artist as being part of the package they are seeking. This is far from simple or easy because eye-candy is very variable (i.e. as us – the public); it’s all very subjective but it seems to be a factor.  We can point to successful and famous singers who are not (or were not) particularly good looking but who made it to the top because of their personality and artistic ability.
  • Must be able to conduct themselves between shows in an orderly and professional manner. Ok, let’s examine some top music celebrities: Pete Docherty, Amy Winehouse, George Michael, The Gallaghers, etc. What we are seeing here is that newbie, wannabe acts that aspire to stardom must be able to work with their backers, agents and promoters in order to get to the top. Once they are established and are selling thousands of albums and have a huge fan base, they might then behave differently, but on the way up, you have to be compliant with the people who are backing you. Contestants approaching the final stages of the competition are being coached, dressed, made up, choreographed, mentored and comprehensively groomed by an army of experts. They are a product that is being groomed for what the experts understand as the expectations of the mass market audience. What we have been seeing on the stage is a product of entertainment expertise. None of them could have achieved this on their own. They have ceased to be the “person in the street” and look, act and sing nothing like when they started. Compare Susan Boyle as she appears now with what she looked like when she first appeared on the television.
  • Must be genuine. Those that have talent but who are weighed down with an agenda have not got into the final stages (this year). However emotionally compelling their agenda might be, the public vote does not always get caught by the hard luck story or the mission of the cause. The public vote can easily evaporate, as we know from political elections. The hard-nosed judging moguls have not been swayed by tear-jerking stories, any more than the majority of the music industry would be.
  • Must be able to cope with the huge pressures that this kind of experience places on them. They really have to want it badly to bear the stress and emotional storm and the intense pressure of having to perform at their peak each week.

Does the X factor really tell us anything about how the music industry operates? Does it reveal how the ladder to stardom operates? The TV programme is a machine; it involves massive amounts of money and huge numbers of people. Even if an act fails to make it through to the semi-finals or the final, they can still achieve a huge leap forward in their careers. Agencies are booking up runners-up for shows and appearances, to peform on the club circuits. If these prime time TV competitions had not been invented, some of these artists would have had to have spent years to get anywhere near what the TV show has brought them.

For every successful contestant, there are dozens of others who will have to haul themselves up the ladder of success by their own strenuous efforts, over years and years. The show has discovered a dozen genuinely talented singers out of 10,000 or so applicants, and projected them into the prime-time lime-light and clearly some of them would never have been discovered by any other route.

So, does all this tell us anything about the multitude of talented musical acts that have never even had a chance to get an initial audition: the singer/songwriters, acoustic acts, bands who make their own original music and would rather be dead than attempt to karaoke someone else’s songs.

Well I think the TV show confirms what we already knew. The music industry (in the UK) knows what the public wants and is able to select and package it into saleable entertainment products for the mass market.

National band competitions have been attempted but without any great success. They have not attracted much air-time (Orange Act Unsigned appeared on Channel 4 for a short while but has not been repeated). Bands do not seem to hold the attraction of solo singers and groups that sing and dance, such as JLS. Bands have to haul themselves up the ladder by their own boot straps. Some might get discovered at random by talent scouts but this is rare and you cannot depend on it happening.

In my dreams I would like to see a prime-time national competition for original, unsigned bands, screened nationally. This would provide a quick track into a successful musical career.  I have seen many bands that, in my opinion, deserve to be at the top, simply because they are good at making music and performing it.  I have discovered bands simply by going to gigs in Leicester. If I could wave a magic wand and transform them into chart topping bands, I would.

Equally, when I see some of the bands that have been placed at “the top of the tree” by record labels, I think, well I have seen better talent at my local live music venue. Why are they there? They are not that wonderful. Success in the UK’s music industry seems a rather randomised process where rock bands are concerned.

Neighbourhood’s Online

I found an interesting blog

Networked Neighbourhoods

which reminded me that I have been doing localised web sites for years, from my very first site Blaby.net.

I got to this via an article I chanced upon in the Joe Public Blog

On the Guardian web site

The piece claimed that there was a ‘new culture of localism’.  Well, there is of course, nothing new about localism, not even on the web. Only a couple of years after the world wide web took off, I put up my first web site, which was about the district of Leicestershire where I lived. I called it ‘Blaby on the Net’ and it brought together information about the local area.

The article on the Guardian site explored how the Internet is giving local people a voice.  That reminded me of the recent meetings I have been going to called ‘Amplified Leicester’, where people have been talking about how they are getting activists in very small communities to make use of the web as a way of connecting together and giving themselves a voice.

Finding a voice via the Internet, the authors argue, gives people power to influence decision-making. Well, nothing new about that and certainly this has been a feature of life on the ‘Net for the last couple of decades.  I did however recognise the issues that the authors of this recent study have uncovered.

The small, localise web sites that I set up were about local information rather than offering interactive portals. I only ever produced flat-bed sites but because they were often the only sites for that area, a lot of people have read them, often from around the world.

Sites such as Stoney #Stanton Village and #Narborough and #Braunstone Town readily came up in the search engines and were for a while the only content available for these neighbourhoods.

Fortunately the web no longer requires web designers to make sites and if you want to put your stuff up you no longer need to learn HTML. Instead you can now set up a blog (like this one on WordPress) in a couple of minutes.

All of this does offer the opportunity for local people to talk to each other as well as express their views to people in the wider political system. In that respect, the Internet now plays a real and prominent role in democracy (broadly defined.)

Thinking about another localised site that I run – ArtsinLeicestershire – gathers together a wide range of information and articles about the many shapes and forms of artistic life in the city of Leiester and county of Leicestershire.

As a result of editing that site, I now get asked to comment on arts issues by the BBC, on a fairly regular basis. Which is great, because every time I go on air, our web site gets a spike in its hits. It’s good to see that webzines are taken at least as seriously as traditional paper-based journals.