Stingray DJAZZ's editor-in-chief Rokas Kučinskas sits down online with expatriate British jazz saxophonist and flautist Chip Wickham, who shares his well-informed perspective on topics as wide-ranging as the Spanish jazz scene, climate change, and the future role of the music industry.
Wickham's music is often categorized as spiritual jazz, yet his latest, atmospheric album Blue to Red is firmly grounded in the conviction that the here and now are the right time and place for humanity to stand up for our future.
In this third and last interview part, we ask Chip: what's next for music? How does he view the future of the music industry given its current challenges, and what are his own musical plans for 2021?
How do you view the future of the music, and of yourself? Coming out strong, or even more in the decline, like you said?
In terms of output and creativity, it will be really good. I think people have had time to sit, write, and create. A lot of my friends in the UK are recording now, because there aren't many shows to do, and everybody can move around and get on with their projects a little bit. Even though they can’t do concerts they can go into the studios and record. So I think there will be a burst of creativity – people will put out a lot of records in the next two years.
Whether the quality of that will be any good, nobody knows. I’ve already seen quite a few albums released recently where people have just done an album at home and released it. And it sounds like it, do you know what I mean? So I think that the quantity and the quality might be a little bit out (laughs). But there’s certainly gonna be an outblowing of creativity. My only worry is that the structure will go... The venues and the support crew and all the sound guys: all that will be a lot less. Venues will shut. I know places that I planned to play in my cancelled tour probably won’t be there anymore when I go back to the UK in April 2021.
The whole industry for independent musicians is in the grip of this, right? Venues and the live music sector are going down…
It was already under pressure though, Rokas. We’re talking of an industry where venues were struggling anyway. They were working really hard to make ends meet. They are massively creative in the way they do things, because they pay enormous amounts of money in business taxes and rates, and all this money gets swallowed up and taken off them, do you know what I mean?
To run these businesses is extremely difficult, and the musicians are getting paid not more every year – we get paid less every year. It’s very hard. And live music is meant to save us, because streaming and record sales are 'promotion'. Spotify and iTunes are killing it, because people can’t afford to make the records to put them on those platforms to not make money – which is in fact all they do.
Do you think there’s a way out of that?
It needs a new format. If it’s going to be streaming, it needs to be done properly.
It needs to be done by somebody that can go: “OK, alright, so we’re not just putting together a system that makes one guy a billionaire.” It needs to be a system that maybe will take 20 years to pay for itself – not some sort of tech-savvy who says: “Oh, I’ve got this app…”, sells it on, makes his billions, walks away, and then everybody’s left with this system that’s a mess.
That’s kind of what’s going on right now. The system right now is just horrible. And all it means is that the only people that will be able to make music are people that do it either part-time, or are rich already. And that will just reduce the quality, because making a record is expensive, time-consuming, and a lot of effort.
Then you’ve got the guy from Spotify saying: “Oh, well, musicians these days need to up their output. They need to be putting out a record every year.” He’s got no concept of the fact that they can’t afford to do that. If he paid us loads of money, we'd make an album every six months. Fundamentally, he doesn’t get the industry that he’s raping. He is physically taking all the money out. He doesn’t understand it at all. And that’s shocking.
It just needs some other system. Already CDs are gone – we make CDs, but we don’t sell many. CDs are pretty much pointless. People don’t even have CD players anymore except in their cars or whatever. You sell CDs at gigs maybe – I sell more vinyl and downloads.
So the formats are all swooshing around. People like vinyl because it’s a physical format. Many people actually want to own something – they’re fed up with streaming and having everything but listening to nothing. That's kind of an issue with music, isn’t it? When you get on to Spotify - there’s so much there, but you listen to the same stupid stuff round and round. Or they’ve got the flippin’ algorithm monkey on your back – all it takes is somebody in your family to listen to Christina Aguilera and that’s it - you get Christina Aguilera forever!
It’s really difficult to enjoy it. And I’m getting like 30,000 streams a month on Spotify, which is a really decent amount. If I was selling 30,000 records a month, I’d be making good money. I’m making 30,000 streams and I don’t make a penny out of that. I make very little. The record company takes half of that, and then – forget about it! It’s like, 300 streams for every dollar? It’s pathetic. It’s pointless, absolutely pointless.
Then I guess the live sector needs to reinvent itself completely. Right now it is the main supporting pillar of the industry – if it collapses, the whole industry goes down with it.
Well, it’s… How do they reinvent it, though? I mean, there’s a lot of streaming going on. Ronnie Scott’s are doing some really lovely streaming, and Peggy’s Skylight in Nottingham in the UK did some wicked streaming as well. Really good jazz clubs are doing online events and you can donate or whatever. I’ve watched some great gigs, and I’ve donated – I think it’s something you should do. I think that’s really very good, because when life goes back to normal they might be able to continue that as a hybrid thing: you can have a live show as well as it being streamed so people that can’t get in and be there can still watch it by paying a nominal fee. That’s interesting, because it’s setting all that up now for the future. And that’s great.
The good venues are as ever industrious, hard-working, amazing people. But there’s also other places that are just gonna shut. They can’t afford to do streaming, or they just literally can’t pay the rent at the moment, because they can’t make any money. They’ll just shut and it will shrink. Whether they will go back again – I don’t know.
Do you think it’s possible that musicians start protesting and stop putting their albums on major platforms?
That’s possibly the only way to stop it all working, isn’t it? For people to stay: “No, I’m not doing it.” But if you’re the only who doesn’t put them up there, of course you’re wasting your time.
The trouble is that the record companies are doing it. So if the record companies got together and went: “You know what, we’re not having this, we’re not giving you a single...” That would be interesting, wouldn’t it? Because that would immediately change their business plan, and someone somewhere would have to start thinking properly about how it all works.
What about musicians’ unions? Can they do something? If the sportsmen in major leagues are not happy, their representative unions get into lockdowns until the satisfying agreements are reached. Is that a possibility among musicians?
There’s no community on that level, is there? There’s no union mentality anymore. The idea of getting together and supporting each other has been knocked out of people. It doesn’t exist in the world. It’s been joyfully squashed out of us over generations, hasn’t it? Where we don’t see that as something we can do, so everybody acts as an individual. And then guess what happens? We all get rolled over, do you know what I mean?
I guess what it needs is an effective alternative. It needs another company that comes along and says: “Alright, we are going to run it this way, not for our profit, but to be fair.” And at that point maybe you’ll get something where everyone will just go: “OK, we won’t use other platforms, but only this one.” But it needs an alternative system.
Streaming as it is, is a flawed plan for music. I love the idea of it: you could just dial in and listen to what you want, pay one fee and you’ve got all that music. it’s a wonderful idea, there’s nothing wrong with it (laughs). But as ever, people want to pay four or five pounds for that. But in reality, to make it work within the structure they've got at the moment, you’d have to be paying ten times that, wouldn’t you? Yes, that is a hard sell, but only because all the profits are set to go upwards and not back into the system. All the money gets sucked upwards and none of it drips back down again – as ever in life with all trickle-down nonsense, do you know what I mean? That’s my economics degree coming in there, isn’t it? (laughs)
But it’s eating the music alive, it’s killing the golden goose. It’s literally just killing off musicians and their lives and their ability to make music, and it's done by the system itself, just for one person to be mega rich. It’s extraordinary for Apple not to pay their taxes anywhere in the world - congratulations! It’s such a shame… There should be so much more common sense that you can’t run a company like that.
Again, you’d expect governments to step in and say: "You’re not allowed to do this, it is unfair practice, this is abusing artists", and step in with some laws. But of course they won’t. They’re all in the pockets of all those rich people, who go: “OK, I bought three Tory MPs this week. What have you bought?” It’s literally like that, isn’t it? (laughs) “What do you own? I own a government!” (laughs) "O, somebody got some money!" It’s funny, but it really isn’t…
Let’s try to end on a more positive. What is your plan for 2021? Will you be recording anything else?
Yeah, absolutely! As soon as I can get back to the UK or Spain - probably in early 2021 - I’m going to be doing two significant recordings. I’ve got it all written, so I’m gonna be doing two things.
Nice! Is it a continuation of what you started with your last album?
Yeah, it will be a similar sound. There’ll certainly be a bridging sort of record, and then maybe one that’s a little bit different. Maybe a little bit more harder-edged, I don’t know… That’s what I’ve written during the lockdown. I’ve written about four albums-worth material, which is brilliant for me. It’s a case of organizing them into an effective story where they all work together.
So yeah - 2021 is going to be that year: I’m gonna get back into the studio and start putting all these ideas together, and then, like everybody else I guess, I’m gonna be releasing way too many records by the end of 2021 (laughs). You’ll won't be able to see me for the avalanche of jazz records, all with like, 'The Lockdown Blues', or COVID disaster titles - a tsunami of them. I shall avoid that, don’t worry - mine will be a very gentlemanly affair. By then everybody will be glad to put it into history – if they can of course.
In April I’ve got a tour booked around the UK, which should happen. I’ve got Ronnie Scott’s - bless them, they rebooked me again exactly a year after the first gig was supposed to happen. On April 10 I’ve got Ronnie Scott’s in London – the headline slot on Saturday night, so that's is fantastic. I’m building a tour around that. I’ve also got Peggy’s Skylight on Friday the night before. I was meant to have German tour, but that got cancelled, so I hope it will happen by the end of 2021, although a lot of promotors are talking about 2022 already…
Editor's note: at time of publishing, Chip Wickham's touring plans for April 2021 have been rescheduled for November 2021. Stay updated about Wickham's future endeavours on https://www.facebook.com/ChipWickhamMusic/.