Its Tough Life On the French Rock Circuit




Rock musicians make millions the media will tell you. Well some do but for the vast majority its a long, hard slog mitigated to some extent in France by generous arts policies which mean gigs pay.  

Want to be a rock star? It’s a hard slog where ever you are. (Image Céline Zed)

Here singer/songwriter Tony Smith, an occasional Rock contributor to French News Online, offers an insider view of how tough life can be on the rock circuit on either side of the Channel/Manche.  He has just released a new track — lyrics & lead vocal by Tony Smith — recorded in a train to Paris. It  can be viewed here while more details are found here. See his earlier review here 

Most British rock bands slog it out on the club circuit for years before becoming famous (or not). In France, there are not as many bona fide club gigs to be had but there are thousands of bars that put on bands. Because of the language barrier (for an Anglophone-dominated industry),there are far fewer opportunities for French bands to”go global” and this has a relaxing effect on their progress. And, as is often the case, in France these rock circuit events are better organised.In the UK, as a member of an up-and-coming rock band, you will generally be paid peanuts — if anything at all; be expected to change in the toilets and told there is a chip shop around the corner for your after-gig meal. In France however, you can make a bit of money on top of your expenses and there will always be a three-course meal laid on after the early evening soundcheck and each member of the group will receive a small wad of tickets to exchange for free beers. Getting changed in the toilets though seems to be a European standard and is common practice wherever wannabe rock groups perform. In the UK, you’ll be finishing your last set at the same time as your French counterparts are starting their first. The drawback to this is that there is a lot of hanging around and waiting to play that French musicians need to learn to deal with.

Many French musicians benefit from the “Intermittant de spectacle” status that guarantees them a decent monthly wage and explains why so many of them play in several different formations. To benefit from this much envied system requires a minimum of 67 paid and declared dates each year. (Some musicians and technicians have been known to buy their “cachets” when they are a bit short of the minima)! In the UK, the dole is the only standby and this in turn implies a bit of cheating regarding being available for work as and when offered. One thing that both British and French groups “on the circuit” have in common is that they often play to half full or even emptier houses. Once, during a lorry strike in France that saw roads blocked in what the French call the escargot, only one person turned up for a gig in the Ariege region where my group of the time, “The Unsound”, was playing. We opted for that energetic rock anthem song that has the line “You’ve got the power” which had me pointing out vaguely into an audience I had to pretend to see !

Of course serious French and British rock musicians have spent most of their time since early adolescence locked in their bedrooms practising their music to the exclusion of all else — pastimes, hobbies and interests — so in general they’re not great conversationalists. Deep, intellectual discussions are not generally the norm as the band roams from gig to gig in the back of their Ford Transit or Citroen Jumper vans – but that doesn’t mean there is no fun to be had … and that’s as much as the reader will be hearing on that side of the business, here!

Till, from the French punk band Guerilla Poubelle (Fahreinheit concert at Issy-les-Moulineaux) (Credit: Wikipedia)

Another crucial difference between the circuits on both sides of the Channel/Manche are the audiences. Standing still on stage, unsmiling, gazing at your shoes while playing and indulging in absolutely zero crowd stage bantering will not go down well with audiences in France where much more rapport and interaction is required. On the other hand this reticent approach would certainly not ruin your chances in the UK. However there are some unpardonables. Keeping your audience waiting, playing with your back to the punters, thrashing your equipment and storming off stage after playing for only twenty minutes, is, even in the UK, the privilege only of groups that already have a big,wide social buzz going for them.

Most successful French and British groups have been through all the travails of the circuit: very thin times, dodgy managers, dwindling even non-existent audiences, labels that go bankrupt, girlfriends who fall for one of their bandmates, a girl singer who splits with her guitarist boyfriend and so on — life in the music business is a well-chronicled tale of such intrigues. But these sort of Spinal Tap moments (that’s the hilarious film made in the 1980’s based on a fictional hard rock group) are part of the woof and warp of any group. Hanging on in there long enough, staying friends and keeping faith are three essentials for any band hoping one day to become a star- studded household name. There’s always room at the top but very, very few make it and sadly the success rate in France is even lower than it is in the UK.

Story: Tony Smith
editorial@ french-news-onlinhe com

Useful sites:
For more on French Rock today
A look back at Rock in France between 1961/99

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  1. Pingback: From French Folk to Rock and Back Again | FrenchNewsOnline

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