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Hidden revenues in playing ‘unsigned stages’ on the festival circuit – Matt Brennan



It’s music festival season once again, and for young, inexperienced, and unsigned artists, it can be a time spent anxiously waiting to see whether they are one of the chosen few selected to perform on the ‘unsigned stages’ that are present at most major festivals in the country.

One such stage is the ‘T Break’ tent at Scotland’s T in the Park festival, which can temporarily claim to be Britain’s biggest camping pop music festival due to the absence of Glastonbury this year. According to the festival’s official promotional material:

‘Tennent’s have been supporting Scotland’s grassroots music scene since 1996 through T Break, and if you’re an unsigned band or solo artist in Scotland, then send us your demo … and you might just end up playing the biggest platform for emerging talent at T in the Park. The T Break Stage at T in the Park is the place to hear the most exciting new sounds on the Scottish music scene, and has played host to some top acts, not to mention this year’s headliners Snow Patrol. You could follow in their footsteps if you impress our judging panel of 14 of Scotland’s most influential music industry experts.’

There is some truth to the notion that ‘T Break’ and other unsigned stages are useful platforms for emerging talent. Back in 2008, I played in a band that appeared on six unsigned festival stages in the UK. We were paid nominal fees (on average around £100 per gig) which in most cases wasn’t enough to cover van hire and petrol, let alone those wildly overpriced festival hamburgers; however, we did manage to appear on the radar of a few agents and record labels, or at least the radar of the unpaid interns who worked there. It was a useful illustration of the bottom end of the music industry food chain – bands being paid peanuts to play at stages scouted by A&R and agency interns who were no doubt paid even less (if they were paid anything at all). Nevertheless, our band did receive more publicity and industry attention than at any prior stage in our career at that point, and it was a useful experience overall.

If the elements of this story sound familiar so far, what is perhaps less well known (at least for performers who have not participated in such competitions) is that unsigned stages are also often the site where musicians are first introduced to the relationship between concert promoters and the Performing Right Society (PRS for Music). The PRS send a team of staff around the major festival circuit to sign up the new bands, introduce them to the concept of filling out PRS forms at gigs, and generally put a friendly face on the collecting society and its activities.

Concert promoters, on the other hand, have often been known for their intense dislike of the PRS , which they view as an organization that siphons three per cent of their box office receipts without having to risk anything, including taking a chance on developing acts. But is this a fair assessment of the role of the PRS for bands at the fledgling stages of their careers?

As I mentioned earlier, my own experience of playing unsigned stages was to make a loss after travel expenses had been tallied. It was only after six months that our PRS royalties from playing those same festivals began to trickle in. Even though we were playing short, 30-minute sets in the smallest tents of these festivals, our share of the overall PRS income for the festivals amounted to upwards of £3,000 – a decent sum of money for any amateur band trying to save up to record their first album. And this isn’t a convention that limited only to festivals: it is commonplace for bands playing support slots for arena-level touring acts to get paid similar sorts of fees – ones that can plunge a small band into debt for the length of the tour – yet these bands know they will eventually recoup when the PRS cheques arrive for performing their original material in front of large audiences.

Building a career and earning enough to stay afloat as a band is a tricky business, especially since record company advances have become an endangered species. But the revenue for playing gigs isn’t limited to the fee arranged with the promoter, and being aware of less visible sources of revenue – like PRS fees from festivals and large gigs with healthy box office receipts – is crucial for any aspiring artist.

Matt Brennan

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