Photo: Peter Dunwell, from www.billybragg.co.uk
Billy Bragg has had a long and distinguished career in music, and has been one of its most impassioned and outspoken performers. When we video-Skyped recently, he reflected on how the internet has created new challenges and opportunities for musicians while killing the recording industry.
– Could you start by giving me your sense of the arc of your relationships with your audience, or where you started?
The big leap for me in audience terms came when I was featured on the John Peel radio show, which was a national radio show in the UK. And that allowed me not only to get gigs outside the area that I lived in, where I was sort of knocking on doors asking for gigs, but it also made people write to me.
– Write letters?
Yeah. So being the conscientious pen pal I tried my best to respond to them, but after a while it was just crazy. And Tom Robinson, who is an English singer/songwriter, said to me that real fans would rather hear your new song rather than get more letters from you so you should concentrate on writing on something not worry about that. So I suppose I’ve always been someone who’s tried to make myself accessible to people.
– Do you still get letters?
Not anymore. It comes down this tube. There’s an address on the website so people write to me to tell me that stuff is happening politically, because there’s a whole dimension about what I do. People write to me to tell me how much they were moved by my songs. People write to me to tell me that I should shut up and stop doing politics and just concentrate on writing songs.
– Do you do your own Facebook?
Yeah, I recently posted something about a protest going on in the UK, about a British billionaire avoiding tax. Tax-avoider protesters were occupying his shops so I posted a link to that. For me, at my stage in my career, it’s how I communicate what I’m doing to people.
When I was first performing when I was on John Peel, there were three weekly music papers in the UK – three weekly music papers – and they kind of covered what you did, if you wanted to say anything you would say it there. If people wanted to know about me they had to read about it in the New Music Express.
And that, at its peak, was selling you know 100-150,000 copies. Well, some of the things I post on Facebook get seen by 150,000 people. And they all want to know about Billy Bragg, they’re not people just buying the NME to you know look over the little bit about Billy Bragg. So potentially, you know, there’s a much greater potential for me as an artist to be able to tell people what I’m doing, where I’m gigging, to make a living selling them shirts, records, stuff like that.
It’s a real tool, the internet, for putting stuff out. And particularly for someone like myself who has a political dimension to what they do. It allows me to riff on stuff. And if you look back on my Facebook page you see me there, not just posting stuff but arguing with people about it as well, and learning stuff from them, and putting ideas out and forming ideas.
When I do a gig I want the audience to go away and feel as I’ve talked to them like I’m talking to you now – looking them in the eye and speaking to them about issues that I care about. And it’s the same with the internet. And the thing about internet is that it does allow me to speak directly, not necessarily in visual terms like this, but in terms of answering comments, to respond immediately to comments that people make and to join in the debate and make sure that people understand where I’m coming from.
If I’ve said something that’s ambiguous or that’s questionable or I’ve done something that they want to hold me to account for. If I’ve said something and they think that’s questionable, I think I should make myself available to explain. Not to apologise, not to back down, but at least to explain where I’m coming from if they want to carry on having a go.
Now my question is: how does the young artist who doesn’t already have a readymade audience like I did, how do they do it? Because this was easy for me. I just plugged in on Facebook and there we were 10,000 people overnight, now it’s 55,000. So it’s never been a problem. But how does the young band who nobody knows? That’s the real question for my industry.
It’s a double-edged sword the internet, because you are on your own, by and large, but then again you always were. But equally you know you have this incredible resource there, and how can you use that resource to communicate to people? And how can you allow the openness to not undermine the thing you’re trying to do? Because if you do stick your head above the parapet, people are going to have a go.
That comes with it, you know that’s the reality of it, and I’m not complaining about that but you know at least in my case people have a go at my politics. If you’re a young band who just play guitar and people just don’t like you because of the way you look or because they you know whatever. You can’t afford to waste time getting angry about that shit, you just keep doing what you’re doing because what you do and true to it.
It’s a brilliant thing but it’s a double edged sword. I mean that’s the thing about the internet – its potential for the artist as an individualistic idealist. And not about politics, just about themselves and about their music. It’s a brilliant, brilliant tool. But it also does allow the world to come in and have an opinion of you. That’s what fame is though, that’s the nature of fame. Everybody’s got an opinion of you whether you like it or not.
– At MIDEM a few years ago, Peter Jenner made a comment that has stuck with me. He said – we were talking about all the issues around money and downloading and all of that stuff – and he said, “If musicians can’t get paid there will be no more good music.” What is your take on that?
Well, you know you’re sort of bringing together slightly different things there. At MIDEM you’re in the record business. The record business is dying, record businesses might be over. The music business, that’s carried on, and as long as people can step up, play a song, make some money, people will continue to write songs. I think that whether or not we continue to make much money from recorded music, enough from recorded music to make a living, I think that’s questionable.
It may be that the albums become like videos were in the ’80s. We spent huge amounts of money making them but never expected to make any money back. They were purely promotional. And records might become like that. You know, they’re a promotion for you to go out and do gigs. I mean the last year I probably recorded six or seven songs. I’ll do one more before Christmas which I’ve given away for free. But I’ve also sold, you know, made six t-shirts which I’m selling for £15.99. But my ability to go out and do gigs has been enhanced by the internet, by the changes.
So I think, you know, people will make great music still because you can experience a download, but you can’t download an experience. Standing in the dark with a load of people listening to a voice singing a song that touches your heart is not the same as streaming it on YouTube. So I don’t worry so much about that. I think it’s being able to get out there and sing songs and do gigs is going to be the key. Not to be massive but to make a living doing what you want to do. The main way to do that is through gigs.
– Do you have thoughts about how the issues of making money connect to the issues of connecting with audience that we’ve been talking about?
Well there are different ways of doing it. The main way is that you obviously you got a target audience for your advertising. You know if you got a lot of people who come to your website who like what you do and you can get their e-mail addresses, you can send them out information about when you’re touring, about when you’re putting a new record out.
When I made my first record, it only sold 1000 copies. I had to get a record in every single record shop in the country, in the UK. So I needed a record label to do that. Now if I make a record, you know, give me a laptop I’ll find a thousand Billy Bragg fans in an afternoon, probably less. What we need to question is whether it can ever be more than a cottage industry. I don’t worry if it’s not more than a cottage industry. If I’m still able to play to a thousand people in Kansas City in 10 years time, I’ll be doing really, really well, I’ll be really pleased.
Nancy Baym is associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas. Find out all about her here!