music business

In Utero

In his letter to Nirvana producer Steve Albini makes a few good points about making records.

In our daily business we, too, talk about making records with artists. In Utero often gets mentioned as the kind of non-polished, gritty record bands aspire to make, usually in response to a discussion about budget, I guess, in the expectation that polish costs (which is undesirable) and grit is cheap (very desirable).

In his letter Mr Albini speaks a lot about understanding the band and the kind of record they want, about letting the band’s personality shine through, about the overriding importance of vibe over control, of playing over tweaking, of the band’s sound over stock sounds.

They are great things to aspire to, as most people can wholeheartedly agree.

Not everyone can pull off making music the “old school” way. The band has to be very good, the producer very experienced and the equipment very good. Mr Albini had done hundreds of records, Nirvana many tours prior to entering the studio to record In Utero. Both parties were very good at doing the thing they were in the room to do. They had the best tools of the trade at their disposal. That is why In Utero feels and sounds amazing.

A band who would agree 100% with everything Mr Albini says in his letter may, with a straight face, suggest working in a cheap little demo studio so it “doesn’t sound too polished”. They’re right about that, for sure. It won’t sound polished.

The following applies to project management:

It’s quite a suspension of belief to arrive at the conclusion that an inexperienced band working with an enthusiastic amateur in a badly equipped, often run down studio will come up with anything even remotely comparable to a major milestone in rock history. The most likely outcome is that the record ends up a turd. Which, as everyone knows, you can’t polish. Mission accomplished. ;-)

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3 Things That Every Artist Needs To Hear

Someone who used to work as an a&r in one of the major labels told me about his new job in music. It was unsurprising to hear him say that he enjoys being free of the relatively small confines of what he used to do for a living. That visible part of the music business, the one most readers of this blog, I would guess, aspire to, is one where a bunch of mates get plucked out of obscurity, land a record deal and become rock stars.

The likelihood of it ever happening to anyone like that is very small. Those involved in the food chain know it and they have few illusions about how hard it is to find success in that world.

The dream of success is irresistible to those desperate to make it. They will believe anything, as long as it supports their unified grand theory of how the music business works. It’s all about who you know and those in the know can push crap music down people’s gullets. It conspires against “true talent” (theirs) by signing shit bands (others). And so on. Fill in your favourite gripe.

In this scenario the victim is always the band. The villain is always the faceless corporate dude doing his evil corporate thing in the impenetrable corporation building.

Knowing both sides of the argument gives me the confidence to say that both parties are closer to one another than they think. Both are chasing an improbably small chance of success in a setting where numerous variables can and usually will go wrong.

Most people in bands don’t seem to actually like being in them. I mean, they don’t spend nearly enough time doing the thing that they’re meant to do. A band is meant to create music, practice, play gigs, make records and look cool.

It’s hard writing great songs. You have to write so many bad ones to get anywhere near a good one that most just go: aww… can’t we just make do with these ones? C’mon, man, we’ve got nine songs already. We need to make an album. Now.

Looking cool is, of course, subjective, but man boobs on a twenty something bassist is not it. If nothing else, try not to look past your peak. Am I fattist and superficial? Don’t care. As Steve Tyler from Aerosmith said: nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.

Doing gigs is really hard work. Night in night out. Same nine songs. Same audience. Month after month, year after year. Only… most bands seem to think that doing a handful of poorly attended shows qualifies them to join the super elite of professional musicians, who make a living because there are enough people willing to buy tickets to their shows for it to be a profitable endeavour to an entire value chain of band, manager, promoter, venue and fan.

How is it profitable to the fan? They get a fulfilling experience for their buck. Why does that happen? Because the band do the thing that they’re meant to do really well.

Become that band. Seriously. A big announcement on Facebook won’t address the root of the problem. A badly spelled email with shit grammar and hyperbole about insignificant achievements won’t either. Hiring a PR guy won’t. Nor will doing the “right gigs”.

A manager might be able to help, especially if he tells it to you like it is.

I read a cool quote recently. It went something like: before you open your mouth, check that what you’re about to say passes three tests. The first, is it true? Second, is it necessary? Third, is it kind?

This is true: the main reason your band is not successful is because your music doesn’t connect with anyone. People don’t like it. It’s not exciting enough, doesn’t sound good enough, it’s not unique enough, catchy enough, weird enough. Any of the above.

This is necessary: you need to be told, because if you don’t know, you will never start working the problem. Most bands who hear this advice ignore it, because it’s uncomfortable and it doesn’t fit their belief system. You can be the exception. Start now. You will reap the rewards in a year or two.

This is kind: the pleasure you get from making music is reward enough. Go back to the reason why you started making music. You did because you loved the sound of music. You may even have loved the musical by the same name… ;-) Either way, you thought at some point, while listening to your favourite record, that it would be so cool to make something that moves others just as much as this moves me.

Somewhere along the way your mind got corrupted by bullshit you heard from people who shouldn’t have opened their mouths. You didn’t get into music to do the right shows, work with PR companies, managers, labels or waste time on social media.

Your focus on those things is the main reason you’re unable to give your muse the attention it deserves. Which is the main reason your music doesn’t connect with people. Which is the reason why the gigs, managers etc. elude you.

It brings us back to the start, to the relatively small confines of the record business. It’s very hard to find artists whose music, personas and work ethic make you believe that success, as improbable as it always is, may happen.

In stark contrast we, the creators of music and good vibes, live in a world that is mind bogglingly exciting and full of opportunity to explore coolness. Here’s the first step:

And then write a song.

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The Great Escape – 5 Things To Make Things Even Better

Last Thursday, walking into the foyer at the Dome in Brighton where the music business convention takes place during The Great Escape, the realisation that I belong to the community of people who make up the music business in this country almost startled me. Even after twenty odd years of working in music I feel that at best it’s a cool lark. But when people we’ve employed, whose first jobs in the business they got from us, come up to say hi, as do strangers asking for advice, it is, without a doubt, a nice feeling.

The best kept secret ingredient of success in music? Refusing to give up.

This year’s TGE was, as ever, very enjoyable. And…

Five Things To Make Things Even Better

1. Music could be more fun. Far too much of it is up its own arse, made and promoted by mind numbingly tedious and pretentious twerps.

2. Music could be angrier. Far too much of it is just jolly nice. It’s not as if we don’t have a lot to be angry about. Take a look around your neighbourhood. Posh boys from posh neighbourhoods are excused.

3. Music could push boundaries. I understand the fascination with lumberjack shirts and banjos, but really, that shit is regressive. The opposite of progressive. Those in the electronic corner can’t get too smug, either. Those bleeps are about as new as Tetris. And that little dance you do while you’re looking down at your drum pad is not cool. Really, it isn’t.

4. We could go for stuff just for the hell of it, especially if we don’t understand it. We should encourage stuff we don’t get. How could anyone know that “the market wants”? Why should anybody care about what’s going on in “the A&R village”? No one truly knows what the hell they’re doing, anyway, and the sooner everyone admits to it, the sooner things will get even better. We’re here to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.

5. Everyone could remember that it’s far less about the “right team” than it is about how a record connects with a person.

Everyone could think about points 1-5 and accept that not enough music really connects with anyone. Agreed, much of it is well liked and some of it sorta sells, but, as the erudite New York A&R executive said: “It doesn’t make kids wanna fuck ass.”

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Music In Small Towns

Analogue 2 Digital is a music business and tech conference in Exeter. In its sixth year, A2D gathers together a bunch of gear manufacturers, musicians and music business people to look at and discuss what’s new and what’s important. This weekend was my second visit as a panelist.

Maria and Jim Peters, who curate A2D, are the sort of people whose initiatives contribute so much to local music scenes. Musicians in small communities should – and many do – stick together to create vibrant stuff in their hoods. Art, music, creativity – these are things worth doing for their own sakes.

The trouble, however, is that too many people have unrealistic business expectations for their music far too early in their careers. These make people jealous, fearful and adversarial. That isn’t good for the soul. People: get together and love one another!

Are You Hungry Enough To Eat Paint?

On the panel we discussed “pay to play”. While it’s deplorable that it happens, the more stupid thing is that musicians agree to do it. In London, for instance, the well known pay to play promoters do their nights in fancy venues with cool histories. Bands flock to play at them the because they think it looks cool to say so on their Facebook. It’s an ego thing. Why else would you play a venue that’s far out of your league? There are plenty of smaller gigs around. Do those.

Bands complain that they’re not getting paid for their gigs. There’s a picture doing the rounds where someone compares the rate of pay of a plumber to that of what a band asks to be paid. The difference, of course, is that I really need that plumber quite badly and whatever he chooses to charge I have to pay. Whereas, unless I’m desperate to see your band because I love the record you made so much that I cannot live unless I see you live… you won’t get any of my time.

The way art works is that you have to do something that other people want to experience so bad that they want to pay you for it. If they don’t, you don’t get paid. Van Gogh, in his poverty and hunger, ate paint and went even more nuts.

Do This – Right Now

If there are no music nights in your small town, start one. You can bet your ass that it will be popular very soon.

Stick together. Support one another. Don’t leave the provision of culture up to national pub chains. They don’t care about culture. They care about selling alcohol.

When the time comes to look for expert help, you may need to travel to find it. The music business, like any other business, has its own tricks. People who work in it know them. Most of us live in London.

I can relate to musicians in small places far away from any big centres of music. I grew up in Helsinki, Finland, a place hardly known for being a cosmopolitan hotbed of new music. Someone in the audience asked what she should do to gain access to the business, being from a small town in North Devon. I couldn’t help thinking that hopping on a bus is not a huge cultural jump or economic risk.

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Shortcuts To Success

My favourite and only hobby, squash, brings to London next week the world’s top professional players to compete in the Canary Wharf Squash Classic, an annual pilgrimage for the capital’s squash nuts. Incidentally, The Animal Farm sponsors the teams at Blackheath Squash Club where I play. My squad just won promotion to Division One in Kent. It’s the highest level of squash available in our county. Cool, huh?

Squash is the new rock’nroll. Fact.

“Backstage” at a big professional squash tournament, a keen junior was “trying out” in front of the main managers and coaches in UK squash. The kid got advice on what he should work on to get to the next level in his chosen field. I listened carefully and took notes.

In my day gig young musicians ask me how to get to the next level in their field. I can’t but feel that far too often advice isn’t really on their mind. Instead, in their erroneous belief that the music business is a walled garden into which access via a secret door is controlled by “people with contacts”, they are looking for shortcuts to success.

I would have thought that it’s easy to understand how in sport it’s clear that a manager or coach can’t give a young player a shortcut to success. All they can do is to tell him what he needs to do differently and better to affect change in the way he plays the game, so he can start beating guys who are better than him.

Yeah? Just knowing Arsene Wenger isn’t going to get a Sunday league player picked for the Gunners next weekend. My mates in pro squash won’t ask me to chip in. I know and they know that at their level I’d be useless.

Explain to me like I’m a five year old why it’s so hard to transfer that same thought process to pertain to the careers of budding musicians.

Time after time it’s a very similar story: a band has taken it as far as it will go. The numbers are low, they’re not getting anywhere. They’re desperate for help. From the point of view of the person who might be able to help, the problems also are all too similar time after time.

Lack of great songs

If a band’s songs aren’t getting the people closest to them excited, people in the business will be even less impressed and punters far away won’t give a toss. The solution: write better songs. They are hard to come by and the only way to come up with any is to write lots. It’s arguable that talented writers are born, but in developing any skill improvement is incremental and takes time.

Lack of great recordings

If the band’s demos have been recorded by a mate as a project for his music production diploma, they will never ever compete with records made by professional people using professional equipment and years of professional experience. The solution: make better records with someone who knows how to make them.

Lack of a great live show

If friends and family attending the band’s pub gigs don’t go apeshit with excitement and spread the word about the next one, gigs in bigger venues won’t be “better gigs”. They will just highlight the band’s inexperience and lack of ability in front of an audience whose starting position is one of indifference. Solution: do lots of pub gigs to get great. The time to switch to a bigger venue is when the small ones sell out.

Lack of a great image and story

If nobody is reacting to a band and its product locally, more promotion and exposure will only further expose their shortcomings, highlighting them to more people. It’s the equivalent of shouting louder to get the message across. Solution: work, evolve, change, create, build, develop.

The two hurdles

There are two mistakes a band can make. One, they don’t start doing the above properly, with the help and guidance of people who know what they’re doing and care about how they do it. Bizarrely, most fall at this hurdle. Maybe they don’t believe in their own artistry enough to really commit to it, so that they people who are able to help would want to get involved. It’s far easier to play at being in a band than to actually work for it.

Those who make it over the first hurdle have in front of them a long and arduous ride. Many quit too soon. That’s the second mistake a band can make.

Over the eight or so years that I’ve been fanatically obsessed with squash, I have won our club tournament, reached finals in wider tournaments and got to represent my county. I’ve taken coaching, attended clinics and sweated buckets. I’ve spent loads of money in the process.

You might say that it’s not much of a result for eight years of playing and training 4-5 times a week. I wouldn’t disagree! ;-)

However, it’s taught me, a music man way past his prime sporting years, a lot about learning and dedication and the “cost” of doing something you really love. Much more so than when I was a young musician trying to make it in music. I didn’t think there was anything odd about my exclusively obsessive interest in music. To me it was normal to want to live and breathe it. Often, it was the only nourishment available to a broke ass musician, anyway.

To the aspiring musician reading this blog and wondering how the hell to break through to the next level, I would say that nothing should be too much, too expensive or too difficult. If you want it bad enough you’ll find a way to do it.

Kurt Vonnegut has some fine words about the path.

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How Bands Earn Their Stripes

I’ve been reading Jazz Summers’ autobiography. For those who don’t know, Jazz is an artist manager with a long history that dates back to the 60s. In his book, he writes of Old Kent Road, just across the tracks from our studios, where in the 60s and 70s there were pubs on every corner and a live band playing in each one.

Musicians learned their trade playing Top 40 in pubs. People went to pubs to be entertained by bands playing familiar songs. If the band were really good, they could throw in the occasional original. Even The Beatles did it when they started out.

This entertainment scene was popular because little else existed. You certainly couldn’t while away the hours at home watching funny stuff on YouTube. Seeing a band play live was a relatively new and exciting thing back then.

My brother showed me this clip of Chickenfoot, the American supergroup featuring Chad Smith of RHCP, Sammy Hagar, Mike Anthony of Van Halen and Joe Satriani, the guitar virtuoso, covering Deep Purple’s song Highway Star.

It’s unfair to compare young dudes playing their first gigs in Camden to musicians of the highest calibre, like Chickenfoot, let alone The Beatles, but the point is that if you’re into rock music you will appreciate a performance like Chickenfoot’s. If you like a good song, you’ll like what The Beatles do.

What do you have to be into to appreciate the cacophony of bollocks happening across Camden on most nights? It’s out of time and out of tune, badly written and poorly played. The audience, a gathering of workmates, friends and family, dutifully whoop and holler in the right places, offering the worst advice ever: “You should be playing bigger and better venues.”

Read this, for good advice on getting out there.

Or this, about the state of the toilet circuit from the point of view of a venue owner and artist manager.

The Manic Shine have been building it, in countless small venues across the land. Next they’re off to Germany. It really does work, this artist development thing, you know?

Paying your dues. Earning your stripes. Such old fashioned values, are they? Answers on postcards, please, unless you’re busy watching funny stuff on YouTube.

This one is actually worth watching.

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Stand Out

The fact that there are no barriers between artists and music lovers anymore doesn’t make it any easier to forge a career in music. Making recordings and putting them into stores is dead easy, granted, but that’s not where the bar is anymore, if it ever was there.

The hardest and most important thing has always been to stand out. Doubly so in this day and age when everyone has nearly every form of entertainment ever created available to them at any given time of day for free on their mobile device.

Listen to this BBC R4 programme about the music business.

Check out the guy from the label saying that it takes a lot to be noticed; for people to want to get to know you is even harder; for them to be engaged enough to want to buy something from you takes even longer and is even harder than that and so on.

You won’t stand a chance with ok songs recorded passably. Everyone has seen that photo of the band against a brick wall. Or that video in an industrial type building.

I refer you to this video about asking yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen.

Stand out. What’s the worst that could happen? You might get somewhere.

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Advice On Writing Songs

New artists approach us for management advice every day of the week. It’s great to be in demand, even if it becomes a bit tedious to hear “we want bigger gigs, some festivals this summer, exposure, publicity and a bit of direction” time after time.

In most cases, the best possible advice one can give is this: come back in a month’s time with ten new song ideas. We’ll listen to them and pick the best one. We’ll work on the lyrics, melodies, riffs, chords, arrangements etc. We’ll ditch the other ideas for not being that great.

Then you go away for another month to work on that one song and to write another ten ideas. We’ll pick one, work on it and ditch the rest. This will go on for a year.

At the end of the year you will have ten good songs. Then we’ll pick a handful of them and go in the studio to work on your sound, get some vibes happening, find an agenda, an ethos, a sonic manifesto for what your music is all about.

When my brother and I were starting out, we spent all our money on studios, demoing song after song after song. We kept sending them to a producer who worked with our management. He dismissed most of them. It was a very frustrating time which went on for more than a year.

However, as a direct consequence of this activity we got the publishing deal that launched our professional careers in the UK.

I’m sure that if the internet had existed back then, we would have got impatient with our perceived lack of progress and we would have trawled the net for opportunities to wow complete strangers with the songs that didn’t wow the one guy who was interested in listening. Geddit? How charmingly stupid is that? I’m sure we would have been woop wooping on Facebook about our “big announcements” all day, like so many are doing today.

I’m no technophobe, nor do I think the good ol’ days were that special. I love technology and utilising the newest and best in it makes making a living in music a bit easier than in the old days. But the business of music, as it pertains to the artistic process, is not rocket science based on the latest technology. It’s based on great songs. If you have them, you may get a career. If you don’t, get someone else to write them for you! ;-)

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