Bright Light Bright Light on Life as an Independent, LGBT Musician

“Has my sexuality been a hindrance? Well, clearly that’s the common assumption, so that alone means yes.”

In line with the release of brand new EP I Only Want To Please You, practically-legendary LGBT musician Bright Light Bright Light (the cunning alius of Welsh-born, London/New York-based Rod Thomas) discusses the struggles and successes of forging a career as an openly gay, independent artist and his own experience within the music industry.

Read the letter below, exclusively for HISKIND.

“Being independent is the best way” … says anyone who hasn’t actually tried to forge a successful career with only the ammo of their own bank account. I write that with a wry smile, as it’s not that doom and gloom at all – making music for a living is an immense privilege let’s be brutally honest – but it is an important factor in the scheme of things.

I’ve been called “one of the most independent artists around” by multiple sources. I’m my own manager, label, tour manager … Janine from Ghostbusters by day manning the phones and emails, and stage-prowler by night, taking the songs around to an audience who have joined me on my wonderful journey.

The questions I get asked most are: 1. What’s been the biggest hurdle you’ve faced, and 2. Has your sexuality got in the way of your career. Or various phrasings of the two.

To answer question one, and hint at question two, the answer to the biggest hurdle is simply: belonging.

To this day, I’ve been seen as tricky to categorize. For lots of the industry I’m “too indie to be pop”, but I’m “too pop to be indie”. Not my own belief, but from responses I’ve had time and time again for the last 11 years of releasing music professionally. Not a sure bet for a major label, and not in the remit of most independent labels. So, where do I belong?

I’ve always been a bit of a loner. Not in a sad way. I never found a group of people to form a band with, but I always had the drive to make music, so I did it myself. I say all the time, if you want something to happen, make it happen. I’m not the best singer, or the best musician. I’m not the shrewdest businessman, or the surest bet, but I work hard as hell and I put everything into what I do. And I love it.

In terms of “being signed vs independent”, many artists have successfully forged their careers independently, but the most cited cases tend to be those who initially had some label deal before being dropped / parting ways with the company and then on their own terms achieving their ambitions. Robyn, Nerina Pallot, Pet Shop Boys, Frankmusik – all have been inspirational in proving the tried and tested “label as God” model wrong, but all had the incredible asset of a label marketing budget to introduce them to the world, helping them reach an audience far wider than a totally independent artist could alone.

I hate talking about money, but when asked about hurdles, there is no way for it not to come up. Thankfully, most fans will never know how much it costs artists to make a music video, artwork, or God forbid pay a band of musicians to play their songs on a tour. These costs are monumental, especially when they all need to be paid for by one person.

“Being independent is the best way” I am told again and again, but I know more than one artist on a major label whose album artwork alone cost more than the entire budget I had to record, master, promote and tour my latest album – including making all the videos. Now, take into consideration the fact that the internet is a harsh, compassionless critic, and imagine the pressure of sizing up to your contemporaries not only musically, but visually, with a fraction of the financial capability. That’s one big hurdle.

Being honest, I felt like the runt in the scene for a very long time. Almost everyone I knew when I was making my debut album signed a deal with a large independent or a major subsidiary, and I was launching an album with around 5-10% of the budget they had. Someone at a major label asked me once “why did you bother putting out your album yourself instead of getting a deal”. Simple really – I believed in what I was doing, and I’m the sort of person who likes to get things done. And it did well. Would I have even had that meeting if I hadn’t?

But don’t get me wrong – I don’t feel hard-done-by, and I don’t hear the tiny violin playing into the rainy skies. There is a huge benefit to being independent – you can make your own family with the team you assemble, and create the space where you belong. I have incredible collaborators who came out of friendships and organic meetings, and a wonderful team who I would not be here without – creatives, agents, PRs and pluggers. Behind the scenes magicians who help prop up and propel this ridiculous, pastel-coloured boat I love to sail so much.

I need to state very clearly, for the record, that I’m actually very pro-label. I worked for a distribution company (who now distribute my label) and dealt with hundreds of labels directly, talking to some of the most passionate and hard-working people I’ve met. People often expect you to be vehemently anti-label as an independent, which I am absolutely not. I signed my publishing with Mute Song recently (Mute are one of my favourite companies, ever), after 11 years of being self-sufficient and would absolutely work with the right label. But that match is not a simple equation, for either side. The idea of tarring everyone in the industry with the same brush is ridiculous. But as someone who was also once told that an old colleague was “not thrilled to have a young gay guy” on the team, I know the music world, like many other industries, is a harsh landscape.

Which brings me to question two. Has my sexuality been a hindrance? Well, clearly that’s the common assumption, so that alone means yes. Sometimes you’re gifted an extra adjective, and you’re a “gay musician”, which is about as flattering as the “female drummer” or “black actor” tags that appear in less creative media. I never experienced first-hand the “please hide your sexuality” advice that is so well documented in the film, music and sporting world, and I don’t actively remember meeting anyone who discriminated against my music purely because of my orientation, but I have definitely felt the embrace from the LGBTQI music community, so you could, by contrast, say that my sexuality has been a massive help.

My biggest champions in the music industry have not been A&Rs or label bosses, but some of my favourite artists. Notably ones in the LGBTQI world. Scissor Sisters – who made me believe that young, fabulous, creative gays could achieve huge success – took me on tour with them in 2012 and have become close friends. Elton John has done more than anyone would imagine for my career, taking me on tour to play 55 shows with him, singing on four of MY songs, because he believes in what I do, and sees the hard work. I’ll be going on tour with Erasure for 29 shows in 2018, which is a dream come true, as my recently penned Billboard article shows, I think they are one of the most important bands of recent times. These artists didn’t take a chance on me “because I’m gay”, but being written about by gay press certainly helped put me more on their radar.

LGBTQI people know that belonging is a very fragile concept. Many people I know have had horrific struggles, and the best of them have overcome and triumphed, forming brilliant communities and collectives who help nurture talent and make nightlife and musical output as fresh and exciting – and most importantly, involving and accessible – as they can. I’m proud of who I am, and I’m eternally grateful to have been connected to the brilliant network of people who I DJ for, perform for, remix, produce, fundraise for … they really do make me feel like I’ve found my place.

The support isn’t exclusively gay though. I’ll forever be thankful to Ellie Goulding who let me have my first big tour, opening for her across the UK for a month, letting me play in front of crowds that I still haven’t quite reached on my own. And for being an incredible example of work ethic in this world of music. She worked so hard, and always with a smile, which is what I have tried to keep as my mantra since.

I gave a talk at a friend’s school once about working as a musician. I compared myself to a plumber. You want to survive and get work alongside other plumbers? Show how good you are. Work hard and hone your skills. Be confident, be professional and give no ammunition for lazy criticism. I was berated by an independent musician for being “too business-like” in my approach to my career once. Never, ever, ever apologise for being organized and driven. If you think for a second that any successful artist you can name doesn’t have business acumen you are truly misguided. Every person who survives in any industry has their wits about them. They plan ahead, they think things through, they budget: like a parent balancing work and family, like anyone keeping their life in order.

Which also leans into the third question that always comes up: “What advice would you give to other aspiring musicians”. My answer? “Just do it.” Like – what do you want? What do you want to do? You want to make music? Go on then! You want to make music for a living? Then you work out your strengths and your weaknesses, like you would do for any other career, and you think of what to do to be better than you ever thought you could be. If I can do it, plenty of other people can too. You just have to try as hard as you can, and put your back in to it. You’ll work harder than you did at any other job, but you’ll have a bloody GREAT time doing it.

I Only Want To Please You EP is out now.

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