Why do musicians lean Left?

In the modern digital age, semi closed communities huddle on line in groups brought together by all sorts of different commonalities. One such community is that of musicians, one that I have been part of since I was young man in the 1980’s.

When looking at a community on line, its usually pretty easy to see what the commonalities are (outside the one that defines it in the first place), because opinion seems to pile in and the upvotes expand rapidly. Memes get shared, a picture emerges. An outsider given access to my Facebook feed would get a very defined view, especially this week in which the conference season has drawn to its climax.

You would certainly get the impression that the music community is both of the Left, and therefore Labour, but specifically they are of the hard left and supportive of Corbyn.

But to me this seems pretty strange, when you bear in mind the real structure of the music business for most of those who operate in it. For a start, we are largely self employed (or moonlighting from day jobs). Those of us who make a living from music generally have several income streams.

For example, I have two permanent bands which I have to promote. I play four instruments to a professional level, so I use that to pull in dep work for the nights when my permanent outfits aren’t working. I repair musical instruments during the day, and run a small business building custom guitars and basses to order for customers. On top of this I teach a little too. At one stage I owned a record label (albeit a very small one), and did demo work in my small home studio. When the work has been quiet I have repaired and restored furniture, as recently as last Christmas.

I am not unique, musicians are largely entrepreneurs. We work for ourselves, and not for huge sums of money as the industry below the ‘big boys’ of Ticketmaster and the few major labels that still exist, is on its knees and has been there since well before the crash. It’s all about low costs and keeping the ball in the air, allowing the player to do what he enjoys most at a small profit – playing, writing, creating, and most of all pleasing an audience. The margins are tight, only those willing to think smart can have both an original act and the money to run it.

As a market, the music industry must be one of the most libertarian, market led industries in the world. If you don’t create what your audience wants, it simply doesn’t turn up. There’s little loyalty to brand. It’s positively Hayekian! Competition is huge, and venues rarely co-operate because they compete too. Be good, and venues will pay a premium because you’ll put bums on seats.  The more the venue needs the band to pull the crowd, the more they are likely to pay to obtain quality and individualism.

So if that’s the case, why are some of the most universally Left wing people in the world, operating in the most right wing business imaginable?

Looking down my Facebook feed, the refrains of ‘Back Corbyn now – Traitor MPs’ or ‘the stronger ‘Kick out the F##king Tories’ often tends to the real message: “Tories are scum” – paraphrasing Nye Bevan of the 1940’s.  It’s all very emotive. Maybe there’s something in that.

Music is emotive, the people who play it tend to be very emotive too. Socialism is driven by the feeling that people should be helped, which is a noble ideal that nobody would instantly disagree with. But the consequences of Socialism are not always what has been imagined. Look at Venezuela for example. What this emotive response seems to have done is to take the emotion and channel it into a polarised view of the world – Socialism good, capitalism bad. Socialists good, capitalists evil. The longer the argument persists, the more entrenched the position becomes. There is no grey, only black and white. Good v Evil.

But I’m a capitalist. I work for myself, my wife and I own our own house. Through circumstances of needing to move quickly, I’m even a landlord. Am I evil?

Another common thread that appears through Facebook, is the belief that much of what government tells us is not just wrong, but a lie. 9/11 was an inside job for example. The CIA created ISIS. This is not so much the view of the older musicians, but very pervasive in the younger ones. Conspiracy is everywhere, especially the ‘Murdoch Press’ (they’ve all been listening to James O’Brien on LBC) and the BBC. Everyone is out to crush their new messiah. Much of what is shared is also wildly inaccurate, but unlike the  UKIP driven immigration memes of previous time that might be driven by ignorance, most of these well educated people should have no such excuse.

So maybe the musical world is an extreme extension of the old adage of head and heart – where ageing is a journey from left to right on the political spectrum.

(The old musician’s joke: “Mummy, I want to be a guitarist when I grow up”. “Well take your pick kid, you can’t do both!”)

Musicians, the eternally young at heart, simply don’t make that transition in such numbers. We’re idealists. But that doesn’t explain the bile and hatred over philosophy.

What’s also strange to me is that the very same people who express such strong distaste at ‘Tories’ on the internet, are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Despite the competitive nature of the business, we don’t knife each other in the back, we compete clean in the main. Competition is internalised in the struggle for self improvement, better marketing, better targeting, but most of all better playing.

When we are all together at jam sessions and gigs, you couldn’t meet a more generous bunch, we do have a real sense of community – and certainly in the Blues scene we’re pretty old fashioned and well behaved too! Very small ‘c’ conservative: Real ale, no Jager bombs or puking in the gutter! I haven’t even been offered illegal drugs in 2 decades. And it’s very inclusive, the experienced old hands encouraging the new shy players and the young guns.

It’s a strange conundrum. But maybe this is where the left in the current era is going wrong in a lot of ways, and there is a lesson in this for the modern left in general. What is it that makes some of the nicest people vent such hatred for another group of people who simply hold different views of how best to run a country?

Maybe it’s because the Left defines itself so much these days in terms of what it’s against rather than what it is for. It defines itself in terms of one group against another, a revolutionary struggle. That doesn’t necessarily chime very well with the small ‘c’ conservative majority in the UK. I rather suspect that this majority might well be less of a minority in the music world too, but it keeps its head down – another small ‘c’ conservative trait. I know of one band who are instrument customers of mine where the guitarist was so anti Brexit he openly talked about hating the ‘racist Brexiteers’ who wanted his kind out of the country (he’s been here over 20 years), and emigrating. However, his singer talked with me about how he felt that somehow democracy was no longer working for the average man and was open to all sorts of detailed arguments about how the EU worked and the alternatives to it.

This is why I don’t think that a Corbyn led, hard left party can ever win in the UK. It can only really talk to itself. Britons, or at least a majority of them, want a positive message, and are not prone to revolutions but more evolutions in terms of their social and political thinking. They are also not easily led to radicalism, but rather they expect a calm sense that their government is steering the ship smoothly from election to election. These people, in the wider community as much as in the musical community, just keep their head down and get on with things until the next time their opinion is asked at the ballot box, and they continue to vote for a steady ship. They aren’t going to fight about it, they’ll just put their X in the right box.

So maybe the musical community isn’t quite as left wing as it appears, but is just a microcosm of wider society after all – the most emotive shout the loudest. It’s just that the music industry naturally attracts the emotive, as that’s what music itself is all about.

It’s easier and more emotive to rage against something than argue for an ideal.









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