Sunday, 24 February 2008

A Cruel and Shallow Money Trench

Everyone is telling me that I have to read Kill Your Friends by John Niven. Well, when I say everyone, I mean a disproportionate amount of music business folk I’ve spoken to recently have mentioned it. Thinly-veiled real record company types make enough appearances to prompt those that recognise them into playing Spot The Mate. It’s a book about an A&R man written by an ex-A&R man and is set in the music business of the late 90s. It’s a book that I tried to write myself a few times and didn’t get much beyond the title, Scared Hitless.

I never knew John Niven – in fact, and this is weird, I’d never even heard of him until my friend Keith who runs an indie label and also writes fiction, mentioned that Niven had written this book. Now, clearly part of me is jealous and childish and wishes abject failure on someone who has not only succeeded in writing a book about the music business but has also managed to get it published, get a bit of a profile and get a 3 For 2 in Waterstones. But mainly, I really think the book on A&R needed to be written, a book that does justice to the madness and the idiocy of that part of the business which everyone thinks they know about – and now more than ever since the entire country thinks they are doing A&R when they watch The X-Factor.

So I was disappointed when I picked up a copy in Waterstones a couple of weeks ago and read the first five pages. I really wanted to find myself laughing or nodding in recognition and … well, I’m not going to unleash a torrent of scorn because I have yet to read the thing in full. This weekend, I was planning on doing just that but the Amazon package is locked away in some depot waiting for me to pick it up. Why didn’t I just buy it in Waterstones that day? Well, partly because I baulked at the tower of cliché in the first thousand words, I just couldn’t bring myself to part with cash for something so disappointing. It read like my fiction about the music business reads - like it was written by someone who is basing it on second hand accounts – the drugs, the laziness, the hopelessly untalented artists and the idiot managers. Normally when I write myself, I read back what I’ve written and think a large part of it is worthless but there are one or two good things which I’ll keep. But every time I’ve written about the music business it’s ALL junk; not a shard of originality or interesting thought. Normally the advice is to write about what you know but in my case it’s write about what you don’t know – the more into the dark I go, the better the fiction. Or so I’ve discovered, anyway.

The bloke who’s looking after the book I’ve written (not about the music business, but it does take its title from the Wire album, Pink Flag) initially read a chapter from my first novel and said he wasn’t interested in it; he had no belief in representing fiction about the music business. Funnily enough, the novel wasn’t actually about the music biz at all but it made enough references to it to bring him out in hives. “There’s no point in writing fiction about the music business,” he said, “because the fact is always going to be more interesting.”

And he’s right. Why make up stuff about how shocking and sordid and brutal the industry is when the facts are already brilliantly and hilariously in print in Hammer Of The Gods or The Dirt? Why tell a rags-to-riches story or vice versa about how it all went right or wrong, when you’ve got genius accounts like Black Vinyl, White Powder or Feel or Crazy From The Heat or Stoned?

Also, if I read that bloody Hunter S Thompson quotation about the music industry again I’ll shoot myself – everyone now seems to be using it in their email signature as if to say that, like Les McQueen, “it’s a shit business” but they’re wise to it.

Anyway, you can see where this is going can’t you? Bitter writer has a pop at successful writer in a futile attempt at claiming moral high ground. Notice though, that I haven’t even bloody read it. That’s like an NME writer saying he hates somebody’s record on principle because he objects to their trousers. Mind you, I think that’s pretty fair in pop – it is largely about the trousers.

But, listen, I promise to have read Kill Your Friends by next time, then I’ll either release a torrent of vitriol or tuck into my own words.


  1. I knew john niven.. but I can't remember how? Maybe he was working at Island? Can't have been doing that well if i can't remember him? Or certainly he didn't cut a dash in the looks department?

    The main problem about ageing is not the fact that you may look like someone's dad or totally invisible (to a 20 year old) but that you won't remember 30% of 'stuff' and in ten years that will have increased to 50%. And what you will remember will be because you have to help your kids with their homework etc. Or so am told.... and that's just ... dire. But you can just sit in the shed and re-read old books and comics so that's ok too.

  2. Blimey, that is depressing stuff. 50% you say? My memory wasn't what it should have been back then and now it's even worse. Let's hope by the end of it I"ll just remember the good times. B

  3. Ben

    I've not heard of John Niven either, not that I supposed I should have done. But I did read his sort of promo-expo piece in one of the British trendy dailies (online, of course) and chuckled somewhat at his Coldplay anecdote. Wasn't planning on buying the book, however. I'll wait for your review.

    Bill Flanagan, a well-respected American writer who has long been head honcho at VH1, found time amidst his busy executive schedule there, about a decade ago. to pen a novel called, with quite magnificent imagination, A&R. Most readers played "Spot Chris Blackwell" for the first 50 pages and then either put it down for the same reasons you mentioned or persisted out of some weird combination of, as you yourself admit, envy and pity. There were some poignant vignettes, but I never really FELT the book. Your agent may well have been right.

    Far better, surely, was Kevin Sampson's Powder - not an A&R novel per se, but perhaps the only barely-disguised music business fiction I could not put down. Did anyone spot Seymour Stein, he asks only somewhat seriously...

    Anyway, you've found yourself a good niche here. Keep at it. Especially with your use of the word "blimey" - not one you often hear in the USofA.


  4. Thanks, Tony - I loathed Powder, although, that's like saying I loathed the James Blunt album, I never got beyond chapter one.
    Niven's book is good though, it's full of flaws and the central character has no backstory to make him more than just-dimensional but it keeps you reading, you want to know what happens right to the end and that's surely the point, right?