The Joy of Essex: You wouldn’t ask a plumber to work for free, so why should I?

I WAS invited recently, by yet another local “free” festival, to perform. I enquired about pay and was told via their committee that they had “a policy of not paying their acts”. I told them that, unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to perform there because it would clash with my full-time music and poetry work.

Now that the entire country has become festival literate, “free” festivals are quite the thing, even at municipal level. They make money and create goodwill. The food stalls and the bar always do splendidly.

The security firm, the stage technicians, the truck and sound equipment hire and the portable loo people all get paid. The volunteer organisers and local authorities all pat each other on the back and, of course, the punters enjoy themselves No musicians or poets are paid.

Observe that this is a free music festival. You couldn’t make the same thing work if, say, it were a Festival of Plumbing, or The Big Roofing Gig. So, I’ll leave you with the maths on that one, whilst I move swiftly on to someone who almost certainly does get paid.

Whilst watching television, in the dry, last weekend – as opposed to doing an unpaid gig in the wet – I happened upon a festival performance by Florence and the Machine.

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Ms Florence Welch, a heart-stoppingly lovely young woman of a kind that could turn perfectly sensible Christian yeomen into lovestruck fools, is a popular singer. To call her band an “indie” act is misleading. This is because everything which I have learnt of her indicates that she is a figurehead for an ultra-modern, highly-successful business set-up rather more akin to a corporate model. This separates her from your standard indie outfit: more usually a team of deluded, bambi-eyed waifs managed by someone operating from a broom cupboard in Camden.

Watching Florence’s enraptured young audience heaving like a fleece in the rain, punching the air and mouthing her song lyrics, was an affecting experience. Florence’s stage act – actually more a sort of dressage – might have suited an Olympic event as admirably.

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When she made her occasional forays into the no-man’s-land between the stage and the crush barriers, she was watched over by a platoon of security men, as well as shadowed closely by a very handy-looking minder. I guessed this was because at a performance two years ago, whilst out crowd-surfing, she was reportedly subjected to a highly-distressing personal assault by an audience member.

People can be mean like that. Even if they seem to like you, they’ll still chuck food or liquid at you, steal your rings or bracelets and sometimes – as happened to your younger correspondent – spike your drink or grab you, roughly, in quite private places.

Ian Dury once said that, watching his audience when they were really ratcheted up, he used sometimes to wish someone would throw a bucket of water over them to calm them down.

I noticed with Florence Welch that when she was in full messianic flow, the damp festival air having demolished her coiffure somewhat, at times she resembled an evangelical Boadicea, or perhaps an Isadora Duncan. This only made her more endearing. I couldn’t always understand what she was singing about, mind you, and her contralto voice, although operatically epic, possessed an unbridled stridency not always present on her recordings.

I looked at the production as a whole, though, considering the size of her band, her crew, her management – the sheer level of organisation – and I thought, “Well, if you’re going into this Babylon of an industry, then that’s the way to do it.” Everything about the entire shebang was monumental – in sound, light, and in gesture.

Then I remembered seeing the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park in 1969, amplified through hastily cobbled-together banks of WEM speaker columns. This was in days before big sound systems. The event was no less impressive. I thought back even earlier to a school dance I attended, aged only 11. Here I watched an early northern beat group belting out songs on our school stage. I stood in the shadows and thought it was the loudest, sparkliest and most exciting thing I’d ever experienced. Quite seriously, I walked out into the autumn air, afterwards, unable to speak.

I think what I’m trying to say is that watching those rinky-dink pop groups of my boyhood was no less exciting than anything on offer today.

At the top level of entertainment events nowadays, however, there are multiple performance areas, with vast arrays of equipment, all helping to generate money of corporate proportions. Florence Welch, only in her mid-twenties, is probably fairly wealthy and deservedly so. She works hard.

In terms of modern presentation, therefore, nothing else will do but that all of our events, even our local ones, attempt to emulate this altitudinous standard: the best equipment for the best job. This is why local musicians and poets, many traditionally among the poorest people in society, are asked to play for nothing. The tail is wagging the dog. But why do the performers – apart from this one – agree to underwrite it all? Do we have even less respect for ourselves than do those who demand we work for nothing? But still. No victims. Only volunteers.

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