The late bar at Queen’s Hotel was rammed with music biz low lifes trading insults while outside in the real world their respective businesses were going down the drain. Periodically the bouncers opened the side doors to let the machinery of music vomit onto the street yet another wannabe who couldn’t stand the heat. At way past the eleventh hour I was deep in incomprehensible conversation with an unidentified North American road hog sporting a goatee and a ponytail. I was wearing red shorts, Doc Martens and a pinstripe jacket. The contrast was as stark as the setting was garish. As formal introductions were made I realised I was talking to the guy who mixed AC/DC, Aerosmith and Van Halen’s records. I made my excuses to step outside for a sobering hit of Channel air. It clears the head better than any known substance. I returned to the fold and said: now, about Ed Van Halen’s guitar sound…
Dude, it was awesome.
So, I spent a few days in Brighton at The Great Escape. We took four of our bands there for a showcase. The house was packed as Athletes In Paris, Rocketeer, Violet Bones and I Remember Tapes turned it on, with brilliant support from Lostaura. We are proud to have been able to host these wonderful artists in such a cool setting. Full house. Full on.
I learned a lot. Quite what I learned I find words for with great difficulty, but it’s encapsulated in a few snapshots. I listened to Paul Epworth, the producer, talk about his work. It’s about making stuff that sounds different, he said. Wise words. I thought I caught a glimpse of an old mate who is a well known artist manager. I lost him in the crowd, but texted him to ask him if he’s in town. Yes, came the reply, where you at, we should meet. On the way to a panel he told me a story about having been introduced at a family event as “he’s in the music business and he’s met Jason Donovan”. His Grammy winning artist isn’t exactly a house hold name and he’s made a living in a cut throat business only for about 15 years, so… yeah…. my mate’s professional record is summed up in that he met Jason Donovan. Great.
He told me he’d been in a meeting with one of the majors where he’d been shown the YouTube channel of a young good looking male singer doing covers of popular pop hits acapella. My mate’s thinking “what is this… why are you showing this to me? It’s not bad, but it’s just… nothing”. At which point the a&r points out the insane amount of views on the channel and says he’s signed the guy recently.
Geddit? You can sign a guy if the views are insane even if the music doesn’t exist! But if the music is insane and the views don’t exist, the answer is no? Remind me again, what is the name of our business? Oh yes, the music business.
This conversation linked nicely with the next panel where three people said that you have to do insane amounts of fan base building and profile growing and so on… and you don’t even need a label. Granted, they represented regional artist development agencies, they are NGOs whose job is to help emerging artists grow in DIY stylee. Their opinions obviously reflects their particular vantage points into the business and there are LOADS of these converts out there these days. It’s an industry onto itself. In stark contrast to them the lone major label a&r on a panel of DIY enthusiasts said he signed his latest artist, who are a well known guitar combo, on the strength of a rehearsal. The band hadn’t played one gig. Didn’t even have a name. But they had a big shot manager.
One could, I guess, use these anecdotes to prove a point this way or that. One feels a little like the guy in the middle, in the scene from Goodfellas.
I think these snapshots prove a multitude of insights, perspectives and purposes while, unfortunately, hiding a famine of creative ambition. What will become of a creative industry that no longer rewards or is that much into being creative? Why is it that at a music conference consumer brands and tech companies have the greatest visibility? Why do all the bands look and sound the same?
We talk to emerging artists a lot. Here’s the thing: they want insurance that there is a system for them to plug into and that the system can be plugged into via people like us, because we have a plan, because we are in the know. Hell, we are of the system. The truth is more complicated than that. The system works only if the music works. The fact, unfortunately, is that most artists don’t push popular culture forward nor do they do something that people like. Nor are they willing to put in the hours to become great. What good is a system then?
The amount of free time and spare change available to people hasn’t increased. The number of choices on how to spend it have and are growing by the minute. There is more and more music in a finite area where people have more and more entertainment options. I’m telling you that it won’t be a new technological advance or a clever branding opportunity that will make people opt for music rather than whatever else.
I get the feeling that people have stopped giving a shit about the music that’s being made. That includes the musicians, the audience and the businesses involved.
We spoke about Jason Donovan. The guys behind his… erm… music were PWL. Stock, Aitken and Waterman made those records. They were the pet hate of any serious musician when I was starting out. They also did Kylie Minogue’s early hits. Listen to Better The Devil You Know and you will find that pop music was more inventive and musically interesting and challenging back then than it is now. Wind back another 10 years from there to ABBA and you will find it to be the case even more. As one of our interns said in a cafe as an ABBA song came on: why don’t people write songs like these anymore?
Indeed. There’s a huge disconnect going on. Dig this: in between bands at a gig they played Bon Jovi’s You Give Love A Bad Name. It got a huge cheer. Ol’ Bon wasn’t exactly known for being avant garde, but people sure liked his music. That’s why he has had a long career and still fills stadiums. Wanna make a bet on how long The Vaccines will be around?
Everyone’s been to a wedding. Put some ABBA on if you want to fill the floor. Ting Tings? Exactly.
We produced some singles for a band recently who referenced everything they did to a couple of records by two artists. It was unreal. Every suggestion we made was debated according to strict criteria, namely: is it on these handful of records? Is it allowed for a band like us?
I’ve never thought of The Rolling Stones as a progressive band, but after reading Keith Richards’ autobiography it’s hard not to notice how dedicated he was to exploring music, guitar tunings, tone, ideas.
Sadly, I found very little evidence of that at TGE. Except, of course, at our showcase! Similarly, while hanging with an old acquaintance of mine, the owner of a large American booking agency, he said he’s seen many very interesting bands there. I asked which ones. He said: my own bands. And laughed knowingly.
On the business side there was a very interesting conversation about the future shape of the music company. I found myself gravitating towards the view put forward by Martin Goldschmidt, the owner of Cooking Vinyl, who argued that the music company should be less bothered about copyrights and be more about providing services on a co-finance basis. They’ve done Prodigy, Groove Armada and Duran Duran this way to great success. Of course, big names like that operate differently to start up bands. Then again, the costs of a start up band are lower because the aims are lower.
A lot of cool things start out as a laugh. Like Truck Festival. Just a crazy idea to have a birthday party with some bands. Then it grew and grew because people liked it. That kind of organic growth, helped by great planning and perseverance, is glaringly absent from the mindset of many artists entering the race. There are too many for whom the idea of a career is appealing if they can get insurance that it will happen. They don’t mind doing the hard work if they know it will pay off by xmas. They “give it a few months” and ask people like me about “what the market wants”.
But who the hell knows?
The only sure thing is that if you don’t get started and, eventually, jump through the hoops in the right order at the right time, you will not get a career. If you’re not prepared to do the shit gigs, the good ones won’t appear. And most of all, it’s about your ability to communicate emotion through performance of music.
The marathon is in learning how to do it. Give yourself the time to learn. Use the time well and surround yourself with people who can help you.