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Vive Le Difference!

make mega-francs across the channel


France's best-known pop exports are Jean-Michel Jarre and Vanessa Paradis: explore the local music scene and you start to realise why there's not much else


THE ROCK 'N' ROLL DREAM is as international as Coca-Cola, and at street level the French music scene is thriving. More young people than ever are playing music, and bands proliferate even in smaller provincial and rural towns.

The most immediate difference between the UK and France is in society's attitude to musicians (and indeed artists in general). Across the Channel, it's accepted that musicians work hard perfecting their craft and have substantial costs and overheads, and this is reflected in rates of pay. So while new British bands are reduced to accepting £50 a night (or less) for pub gigs and assorted worthy benefit appearances, in France even the most obscure of unknown bands is paid at least £150 plus food and drink, with an average up to £300. Local/unknown support acts for name bands get £500-600.

Sounds good. But before we all pile into our Transits and hurtle down the M2 to line our pockets on landing in Calais and retire to a life of luxury on the Cote d'Azur, it's worth noting some other problems French musicians face.

As a result of continued US/UK domination of popular music, there is still no such thing as a truly French creativity. For young bands, this lack of indigenous stimulation leaves them directionless and reduced to secondhand adaptation of imported trends (which surface in France some six months after the UK). This often reflects in the poor quality of mainstream music.

Of course, this is not universal. African pop took off in France years before it caught on here, due to continuing contact with former French-speaking colonies. Ironically, the most popular African act in France at the moment is led by a white South African - Johnny Clegg and his band Savuka. But for many Africans, France is the place to earn some money and branch out onto the international circuit.

Although more bands now insist on using their native tongue (a growth of post-punk nationalism), there has always been a tendency to sing in English - the language of rock. This practice resulted in singing in "yoghurt", where singers mastered the vocal idioms of British and US acts to the extent of out-Jaggering Jagger, or aping perfectly the passionate wimpishness of Phil Collins. This extended beyond cover versions to original material, with bands writing English lyrics without any real grasp of their meaning, relying on phonetic mimicry and a stock of clichés.

Deprived of a native environment which encourages experimentation and musical development, many French musicians drift towards slick virtuosity as a substitute for real expression. Extended chords and fast jazz-rock licks may sound initially impressive, but soon wear thin - the eternal problem of form without content. Top acts, such as Jean-Jacques Goldman and Julian Clerc, travel to London to record and pick up British session musicians for their touring bands. Others are abandoning musicians altogether with the arrival of increasingly sophisticated technology.

Having said all this, many French musicians claim their music scene is healthier than ever (though interestingly, British expatriates bemoan the lack of creativity and innovation). In terms of numbers playing, the scene is healthy. So what are the costs and potential rewards for a musician trying to earn a living in France?

First off is equipping the band. Although electrical goods generally are up to 50% more expensive than in Britain, musical instruments are more equally priced. A keyboard player I spoke to had just bought a Roland D10 synthesizer for £850 and a Korg DSS1 sampler for £1500 (£785 and £2250 respectively in England). As elsewhere, prices for hi-tech gear are coming down all the time, and there's more chance of deals and discounts in the French market. Given a higher standard of living, the costs of kitting out a band are roughly the same - an expensive business on either side of the Channel.

So the band is equipped, rehearsed and ready to go. They then come up against the most oft-quoted problem for French musicians - a chronic lack of venues.

There is no tradition of pub (café/bar) music and no college circuit as such, although towns with student populations offer the most possibilities. Paris, with a population around seven million, is closer to Bristol than London in the number of small to medium-size venues it offers. The situation doesn't appear to be getting any better, and maybe it's significant that there is no musicians' union campaigning for more live music. The main regular venue is the nightclub, but these tend to be pricey in terms of admission and drinks, so bands don't always play to the audiences they would like.

Given the lack of live venues, the story for many bands is depressingly familiar. Youthful zeal and the excitement of a new experience are steadily worn down by the frustration of having nowhere to play and the apathetic consumption of the market. There is a high turnover of young bands and, as in the UK, many older players find a solution in semi-professional status.

For those that remain committed, recording is eventually essential. To attract interest and get what gigs there are outside their region, bands must have a demo tape. This can be expensive, with the average well-equipped 16-track studio charging £20 per hour - plus tax at 18%.

The major French record companies tend to be even more conservative than their UK counterparts, and collectively display the musical appreciation of a pebble. To catch their ear, a uniform blandness and banality are essential, but even with these it's still a matter of luck - of being heard by the right person, in the right place, at the right time. Risks are not taken because they are not necessary, and as a consequence, French charts-and radio are dominated by MOR pop of unbelievable awfulness.

Creative acts whose ideals and commitment survive can turn to independent labels, but these are less common, less big and less influential than their British counterparts. They come and go like mushrooms (and young bands), releasing a few tracks and then disappearing. Bands accepted by indie labels often have to pay their own recording costs, and can expect no guaranteed income in return - only what meagre royalties the inadequate distribution network may provide.

Away from the rock arena, there is money to be made from playing dance and/or background music. Especially in the south where the weather is predictably good, there are hundreds of town and village festivals throughout the summer months. These last two or three days and the band must provide dance music for audiences aged 8-80. This is achieved in two parts: first playing cover versions (and playing them damn well), then changing the line-up to, say, bass, drums and accordion to play old-style French music for the older generation. Needless to say, these bands must be musically proficient - good readers and learners capable of constantly updating their repertoire with the latest French and imported hits (known as "tubes").

Equally lucrative, and with an even shorter season, is playing ambience music in the bars and restaurants of tourist resorts. The seafronts of Cannes, St Tropez and the like consist of bar after bar, and many have bands - though for reasons of economics, proprietors prefer solo or duo acts. These jobs last 10 weeks at most, but if you're prepared to play background muzak there's a killing to be made which will go a long way to subsidising your career during the bare winter months.

The bottom line is this: which is preferable, one gig for £150 or three at £50 each?


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