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cMc - Not Reaping Rewards?
by Steve McGrail


If there's one certainty about professional traditional musicians, it's that not many of them are rich. Only a handful would admit to wanting to be, of course: a love of money scarcely chimes with the tradition. In reality (and realistically), few performers actually aspire to fabulous wealth. On the other hand, presumably none would spurn the chance of rather more cash going into their pockets, if offered.

Low income and traditional music routinely go together, so routinely that it's perhaps something rarely ever thought about by many fans. Some of those same fans might even call the fiver paid at the folk club door a bit steep, and yet more so the 15 for that concert seat. One of traditional music's best qualities is its voluntary and participatory roots, but it's a quality which may accidentally work to mask the needs of the full-time professional artist.

It's not that no professional lives comfortably. Some do, although maybe at a price, that of having to leave friends and family to tour abroad almost continuously. Even top-rank performers can be caught up in this. All that said, players can sometimes manage pretty well, including far less illustrious ones, particularly when going solo. Thus in Belfast - home to outstanding talents like Sean McGuire and the McSherrys - there lives one Mike Doyle, whose living is singing, mainly beside the city's oldest pub, Kelly's Cellars. "Yes", he says, "this is my only job, I earn 17,000 annually, I tell the taxman - and claim for all the broken strings, too!"

Such individual performers have advantages. Probably more typical of full-timers are those who operate in one or two large bands. An example is Marianne Campbell, best known as half of Deaf Shepherd's fiddler duo along with Clare McLaughlin. Being linked to what has been dubbed perhaps Scotland's premier young band' ought to bring big financial and other rewards. Yet these are seemingly not big enough for Marianne to rely on alone.

"Sadly not", she explains, "I couldn't survive just from one outfit. Actually, I know of nobody anywhere achieving that. So, I'm also in Canty Chiels and cMc. and I'm increasingly gigging with Maggie MacInnes. I do ceilidhs too, with people like Brian McAlpine, sometimes as 'Box of Bananas'. A full week for me would be two gigs and a ceilidh as well, but that's rare. Some weeks there's nothing. I also do twice-weekly fiddle teaching at a primary school in Edinburgh and at an Adult Learning Project".

Up to now, this sounds reasonable. Two gigs and a ceilidh plus teaching would bring in enough of the readies, even if erratically, wouldn't they?

"Hardly," says Marianne, "and it depends what the events are. At best for Deaf Shepherd we'd get 1500, reduced by 15% for agency fees then other reductions for sound etc. We might each get 140 finally. Accommodation and meals are extra. If they're not in the contract, we don't play. That applies abroad and at home too, unless the gig is local. We rarely do folk clubs, it's not cost effective. The exception is Stirling because it's where my brother Rory and I came from; besides, we like them for being the first club to ever book us. We might collectively get 600 tops there from the door, that's how most clubs operate... Which means inevitably that fewer punters equals smaller fees."

"Alongside concerts and so on," she continues, "I'll often do sessions with others. Edinburgh has lots of sessions. You don't actually perform all night, you basically just MC and play occasionally. The going rate for three hours is 25 between you, with usually a free pint, though never food or transport costs. I'm not whingeing about any of this, incidentally. I love making music, I wouldn't do it if I didn't... Still, if there were more cash available, I'd take it gladly... Just for this one year, as it happens, there will be. Deaf Shepherd is playing the Millennium in Parliament Square in Edinburgh - for a fee that let's say we'd always like to get!"

Marianne has the advantage of being able to oversee the life of a full-time musician from the viewpoint of a member of both an established band and of a new one, which is cMc:

"It's different for cMc, in that, going for just a year, it's a very hard slog. It's different music to Deaf Shepherd's, I get to play more fiddle and sing solo, too... That's another side to being in other bands, by the way. It's not all about mere economics, it's crucially about exploring other musical possibilities as well. cMc is me and Clare, and Irish guitarist Gavin Ralston of the Begley clan. Our major problem is getting known. We're not yet, and although we've had some good reviews we still can't charge much - 300, say, with expenses on top of that."

Getting known is a critical issue. "If it's difficult for us, with all our connections, what must it be like for complete newcomers?" she asks. "Well I know, I've done it". The best route to becoming known is fairly straightforward, however, according to her. Unfortunately, it's potentially expensive and not always successful: it's recording a CD. Without that, she believes, a group has little chance of lifting off.

"We've just done one, at Watercolours Studio. It'll be out before Celtic Connections, and will probably be called 'That Was The Year'. I hope it succeeds, CDs are great advertising It's features traditional tunes and some fine new ones by William Jackson, Niall Vallelly and Charlie McKerron." (Indeed it does. It also features a number called 30 Arse Jiggin'. Alas, 'arse' is apparently merely Swedish for years').

Several thousand pounds can easily go into a CD. cMc have born their production costs themselves. Their next step is to either promote the recording privately or put it on a commercial label. There are some 25 labels in Scotland periodically issuing traditional/folk material, and all competing. Whatever else happens, cMc's CD will have to take its chance in an already saturated market: "Daily we're sent on average four new CDs to review," Pete Heywood, Living Tradition's editor says bluntly.

Of course, everything hinges on audiences, for cMc and Deaf Shepherd as for everyone else. Scotland's potential traditional/folk audience looks impresssive at 25% of the country's population. But this is down on five years ago, according to the Scottish Arts Council's 'Traditional Music in Scotland' report. Audiences are possibly becoming more fickle. 'Celtic' music is currently riding high - whatever 'Celtic' means. "I'm unsure myself," says Marianne. "I just know there are scores of brilliant musicians around, but only so many fans. Actually, I sometimes wonder if the bottom will drop out of the whole Celtic' thing one day."

Perhaps it will. And perhaps also it was ever thus, musicians losing out to fashions and struggling to get appreciated. In Scotland, the quality of their output is not in doubt, but what is less clear is that they are winning the regard they deserve for it. It's not mere finger-pointing at promoters and even fans, but there still remains a question to answer: the huge amount of voluntary commitment notwithstanding, is enough really being done for those who are trying to make traditional music their way of life, and who are giving the rest of us so much in the process?

Steve McGrail

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