The Struggle Of Being An Indie Musician In Italy

In partnership with Going Solo

For many years and at different levels our team at Going Solo has been involved in the Italian independent music scene, as webzine contributors, DJs or gig organizers, but then we found ourselves in a situation where we wanted to stand up and do something different. That was more than a year ago and that’s also when Going Solo was born. It’s a response to a local scene that will not change easily, but our struggle as music journalists is nothing compared to the difficulties that Italian artists face everyday as they try to emerge from this dysfunctional system.

The truth is that being an independent musician in Italy is a mess. And if you sing in English, then you’re making things even more complicated. Why? There are many reasons, and trying to connect them all is pretty much impossible. Nevertheless, what is not lacking in Italy is indie musicians. Without going too far back, in the last few years Italy has given birth to many interesting projects that you might have met around the world (or via HumanHuman), and yet they continue to struggle to establish themselves, both in their own country and abroad.

Brothers In Law, Green Like July, M+A, His Clancyness, Be Forest are only a few examples of what is really good in Italy. Critics loved them all; some of these played SXSW on multiple occasions, and M+A even won their spot at Glastonbury Festival through the Emerging Talent Competition. However, none of these bands have ever headlined a significant musical event in Italy.

While songwriters who are used to singing in Dante’s tongue have realistic chances of getting the limelight within the mainstream Italian music scene, those who adopt English are aware of the risk of being forever relegated in the background. Our first food for thought comes from Andrea Guagneli, drummer at Brothers In Law:

Mainstream media doesn’t make any distinction between a quality product and a poor. Success is only for things that can be sold easily. Radio and press offices are controlled by majors. These are the main problems.
Andrea Guagneli, drummer Brothers In Law

And it might sound obvious, but it’s certain that the majority of Italian music listeners are unaware of this fact. In contrast to this, the regular listener of BBC radio channels has the opportunity of hearing music from every kind of new artist on a daily basis; the possibility that the same situation could occur in Italy is pure utopia.

We believe that magazines and websites contribute to the lowering of standards mentioned by Andrea. Readers are little to nothing stimulated and any real musical research on newsworthy items is virtually absent. Another problem is that everyone in Italy is still anchored to the album format, so it’s incredibly hard for artists who haven’t already arrived at that point in their career to find support through Italian music journalism. To add more frustration, we wouldn't expect any Italian publication to act as a global trendsetter, the result being that we only get opinions on artists, such as Tobias Jesso Jr. and Marika Hackman, or about trends, like PC Music, when everything has already been said by foreign medias.

Another problem: everyone in the Italian indie scene (musician, fan or journalist) knows everyone in the Italian indie scene in person or, at worst, through social networks. And everyone is a music writer. A real music critic doesn’t exist anymore, and complacency has become the basis of anything written in as journalists try to avoid the risk of antagonizing PRs or the bands themselves. The Italian independent musical movement is also characterized by a further conflict of interests that it seems as though anyone can have a go at being a reviewer. For example, label owners and members of press offices are no strangers to writing reviews, and we sometimes find that musicians are also editors of various publications. Furthermore, there’s a serious financial issue, because those who write for magazines are the only ones who get a (poor) salary, while webzines are run on free contributions. It would seem that only “dinosaurs” - music journalists in retirement age who are still in charge in national newspaper’s offices - survive.

Jonathan Clancy, the mind behind A Classic Education and His Clancyness, has something to say on this topic:

No other country in Europe has four magazines on “alternative music”. The real problem is that it lacks the public to sustain both live shows and magazines. A couple of magazines without the urge of selling to stay alive would be enough in Italy. It’s difficult to emerge in the chaos of the so-called alternative/underground music scene because Italian media pushes together projects that have nothing to do with each other and anything that has to do with an interesting musical research. I’m thinking about bands like Father Murphy and Zu that must claim their place through thousands of easily-sellable pop songwriters. Not easy at all.
Jonathan Clancy, from A Classic Education and His Clancyness

The exaltation of the old, of what was past but never changes, is one of the evils that the contributors to this article continue to push forward. In the last few years, Italy has seen countless “copy/paste acts” that fail to do anything more than what institutional bands have done before. We genuinely think that our country has the highest concentration of undeclared The Strokes cover bands in Europe. The consequence is that the casual listener in Italy cannot discover to anything that is slightly new with an open-minded attitude, but stays stuck forever to what they already know. Brothers In Law confirms: “The main difference between the Italian public and pretty much every other public in the word is the lack of curiosity”. A fact that is detectable also at live shows: new music is often considered as a vexation, something that is better to water down with booze and loud chats. Who cares if you’re going to ruin the gig experience of someone else? Is there really someone who cares about these newbies?

M+A are of the same opinion:

Emerging at home is difficult because the Italian musical culture has never articulated in a complex way, it never came to terms with the differences, with the multiplicity: there isn't a real mix of cultures, sounds, music, experiences. Music in Italy has to be made exclusively in a certain way: a parody of the past, a parody of the future, a parody of the exotic, of the autochthon, of the alien... a parody to stand out. Italy is often nostalgic in the cultural field, a nostalgia that doesn't really have a precise referent, we have nostalgia for a past or a future, that we don’t even know, and that is often mythologized.

A parody. A thought that also comes to mind when considering that Italy is the only European country that is unable to set up a real music festival, with multiple stages and a varied lineup. Italian festivals are actually theme days, with three to four bands playing subsequently the same stage. That being said, some are trying to change this awful situation, such as Vasto Siren Festival, which is run by one of Italy’s most important booking agencies and will face its second edition this year, with James Blake and Verdena, both picked from their roster, headlining this event. However, there is an obvious downside: since the event is organized by a booking agency, the line-up is forced towards their own interests, which means that there’s little variety. To organize a concert is a venture for pretty much everyone: you need to wade through stacks of required papers, the support of institutions is non-existent and the ostracism of local residents is the rule. Not least of all, the principal body that should protect Italian songwriters and artists, the SIAE, is nothing but a thief that hurts small songwriters and venues to unfairly redistribute the wealth to the big names of Italian music. More than that, since Italy is hard to conquer, there’s no promoter that would risk anything on new artists. They feel like it's better to wait for them to become successful, but even then it isn't a guarantee.

The difficulty of expanding an act’s potential audience is one of the reasons why Italy is stuck in this dramatic scenery. As we said, real fans are few in number and this obviously affects live shows. Just last month, Ben Khan has made his first ever stage appearance in Italy, but only fifty people showed up to his Milan performance, with the obvious consequence being that Italy won’t be included in his next European tour. It is therefore not surprising that the majority of Italian independent musicians fail to make a living playing in clubs and selling their music. For example, Umberto Maria Giardini, one of the most crafted songwriters of the last decade, is also a fireman, and Pierpaolo Capovilla, who has sold out many Italian venues with his band Il Teatro Degli Orrori, makes up his wages as a waiter. Pretty much every emerging band in Italy must deal with a type of apprenticeship, which means packing themselves in a van for months so that they can play every possible venue on the peninsula. For free or at best for a refund of travel expenses. Every single emerging band has to deal with two to three years of hard times. To make a living out of your music is very much still a privilege.

So who is holding the destiny of Italian emerging artists in their hands? We said that critics have their own responsibilities, but the only ones that are making and passing around any profits are likely to be booking agencies and press offices. To have the right connections helps, at least in terms of visibility, but can it be productive to rely only on national promoters when your ambition is global success? We don’t think so.

Historically, Italy tends to be a self-enclosed country which leads to another issue our music scene faces: the use or avoidance of the English language. Manuel Agnelli, founder of the successful Italian independent band Afterhours, has stated that one of the reasons why they started singing in Italian was because the audience wasn't able to understand the lyrics. According to an infographic by Parisian start-up Pili Pop, Italy ranks only twentieth (of twenty-four researched countries) when looking at familiarity with the English language.

What Italy needs is a cultural revolution to bring her back to where our country deserves to be, and that’s between the excellence of Europe. Unfortunately, it is instead locked in an old-fashioned policy where culture – and music in particular - is seen as a necklace rather than as a necessity.

Like many independent artists, M+A also have clear ideas about this situation:

Music is a reflection of a much wider reality. Italy is a country full of contradictions, latencies, and potential: I think the problem is that Italy has stopped keeping up in every sense. Its change should not be done in view of an alignment with the rest of the world, it’s the one thing that we never get: Italy should change in order to keep its own pace, with the rest of the world. Different trends for a single race: the key is always in the harmonies between the differences.

It’s not surprising that the Italian musicians who have made a name for themselves abroad are those who have already left Italy, and now others are following their example. We’re talking about established artists like Porcelain Raft or The Bloody Beetroots, as well as emerging ones like M+A or Populous, who recently signed with Primary Talent International, the booking agency of Daft Punk, Moroder, Lana Del Rey and Alt-J. However, there is hope for home-grown talent in the electronic scene, which is more receptive than other genres in the country and actually gives a chance to what’s new. Events like Rome’s Spring Attitude and Turin’s Club To Club have nothing to envy from their European counterparts. The last C2C's edition, for instance, has reached 40 thousand attendants and drawn the attention of the foreign press like The Quietus. Unfortunately, this is an exceptional circumstance, and so artists continue to seek success outside of Italy.

Matilde Davoli is one of our national talents who has moved abroad, specifically to London. Despite the difficulties encountered in “a tough reality, where it’s hard to get integrated economically” where “people in the music industry have prejudices about Italian music”, she has found fertile soil for her solo project. Matilde offers us a focus on another difference between Italy and the rest of the world:

Venues abroad are well structured, with two rooms and one exclusively dedicated to concerts, excellent audio facilities, highly competent sound engineers and a generally polite audience
Matilde Davoli

Jonathan Clancy (of His Clancyness) agrees:

Sometimes in Italy there’s too much attention for unnecessary formal aspects that contrasts with the little care for the fitment, the lights and everything that helps to set the right mood. It’s no coincidence that the best venues in Italy are those with managers who travel the world, go to festivals, hunt for ideas that can make their venue a better venue.
Jonathan Clancy

Nothing to add here: keeping the passion alive is the only way to carry forward a quality experience for both the fans and the performers.

So far, we’ve discussed some of the difficulties an emerging artist has to face in our country, but are we sure that Italian musicians are not to blame? We aren’t. We have found that many Italian bands are the first to not bet on themselves, because pursuing a career in music in parallel with other work activities seems almost impossible. We rarely hear about some young band claiming to have taken a break of one or two years from their studies or work to concentrate all their energy on music; this can only happen when a wide audience has already been conquered. In Italy, very few artists seem to take risks and this denotes a lack of courage and self-confidence to which the environment that surrounds music contributes. Iacopo – the Italian half of Kanine Records’ Leave The Planet – explains:

In Italy, especially in small towns like Lucca, people don’t see music as a real job, but as something superfluous that doesn’t matter and can’t be developed in time. And this gets amplified when your musical proposal is not aligned with the general standards: they don’t understand, they don’t take you seriously

For these reasons, artists in Italy aim for the lower target, offering premieres and stuff exclusively to the Italian media (not good, as we said). And yet Jonathan Clancy, who’s one of the few not touched by this trend, affirms:

To get known abroad is not easy but also not impossible. Too often I hear of groups that soon reach decent cachet and situations in Italy, but have no intention of playing around Europe and sleeping on the couches of strangers. If you play and you believe in what you’re doing then you should take your music everywhere. Ljubljana, Modena, Hamburg, it doesn’t matter. It makes no sense to stay to watch the national borders. Bands from other countries don’t do this at all.
Jonathan Clancy

Obviously, this reasoning applies to all those musicians who opt for the English language. Musically speaking, the Italian tongue is itself a conviction to those who have xenophilous ambitions, but at the same time it’s the winning choice if you want to get to the top in our country. If you don’t sing in Italian, then you don’t have any possibility of becoming someone in Italy. If you do sing in Italian, you potentially put a stopper on any success abroad. Only bands who focus more on the instrumental side of their music, like Giardini di Mirò or the previously mentioned Zu, have a real chance. Our country doesn’t seem ready to challenge this problem at the moment, and so, our national artists are trapped between a rock and a hard place.

And yet, there was a time Italy was ahead of other countries. A time when Italy was the innovator. So how can we take back that place in the European musical panorama? Potentially, there are many levers that can help us, for example combining musical offerings with local peculiarities and taking advantage of the beauty of the area (role models already exist, like Hana-Bi and its stage on the beach). Every single Italian musician we asked about this struggle agrees: what is most needed here is a shock to the whole scene and, in general, to the whole country. From the importance of learning foreign tongues to a new open-minded approach to what's different, Italy needs a cultural revolution to change. A dream that could become a reality. As our frustration with the out-dated habits of Italy’s mainstream media and stagnant activity throughout most our independent culture continues to grow, more and more people will call for change. This mechanism is already set in motion, as we have seen with great indie musicians like Brothers In Law, His Clancyness, M+A and Matilde Davoli, and music writers like ourselves who actively support these rising stars, in the hope that these exceptions will become much more commonplace.

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