Sunday, 6 April 2008

He's in a meeting ...

Over the last couple of weeks I've been having meetings with various record company executives about a business I have. It's not important what the business does - although if you do need a one-stop, bolt-on A&R service then I am very much your man... Ahem, sorry, which hat was I wearing? Right, sooooo, I've been in these meetings and the thing I've realised - apart from that the CD and download-selling trade is in a spot of trouble - is that I'm really enjoying not being the one who's hosting the meeting.

When you go in for work-related meetings, there's generally an unspoken hierarchy isn't there? The person coming in for the meeting, the person who's driven in, or in my case, got on the bus, is the guest, who is lavished with tea or coffee - and in some cases, a little cakey treat - but he is nevertheless very much the lower status meeting attendee. Particularly when he's there to sell something. The person hosting the meeting, on whose turf it is taking place, is the high status attendee. I've worked in offices of varying size for most of my life - either for various record companies or for online ISPs and so I've been the host many times. Either I would be an A&R person, lavishing my valuable time on young hopefuls or an Editor nodding sagely as sportily-dressed website entrepreneurs would list the reasons why we should be partnering up with them.

To be frank, these 'meetings' were pains in the arse for both parties. In the case of music, the poor artist or manager doesn't want someone to listen to their stuff in an office, an office?! This is their creation; their art - it must fill them full of loathing for the person sitting opposite them behind his desk. And the A&R man, listening to the music for the first time, sitting in front of the creators, aware that they're pretending not to watch your every facial tick... I mean, if you are a fan of music it's like having someone watching you wanking.

Sadly a lot of the time, the music just didn't connect with me. The number of times I would sit listening to someone's cassette (remember them?), it would finish, and I would find myself looking at a sea of expectant faces, whilst concluding a Sainsburys list in my head. One time, I found myself getting a fit of giggles during Track 1. I had to stop the tape and apologise. I put the music back on but promptly started crying with laughter again. It wasn't that the music was funny, I think it was because I'd just realised the absurdity of our situation. Another time, whilst exceptionally hungover, I put the cassette in, pressed play and the office-full of us waited for the first song to start. It didn't. After a few jokes about the 'ambient beginning', the singer remarked that the leader tape must be a bit longer than usual as Track 1 should have started by now. I casually glanced over at my cassette deck and realised I was in process of recording over Track 1. Bugger. I turned to the band and, with minimal eyelid-batting, said, "You know what, let's go to Track 2, shall we?"

Sometimes people would come in and say they had meetings when they didn't - it still goes on and you've got to admire the pluck. Last year, whilst at V2, I wasted many emails telling some Swedish songwriters that I never took meetings before hearing music. They refused to send me any music, claiming they were concerned about theft of their ideas. A couple of weeks later, Graham on reception phoned through to announce that my Swedish songwriter meeting was here. I ended up having to go down to reception to personally take the CDR and needless pile of A4. I claimed I would love to spend more time with them but was already busy in a meeting. Actually, I was just starving and really needed to go and buy a sandwich. For some reason they insisted on waiting in reception until their next 'meeting'. If this had been Universal they would have been escorted gently out of the building but V2 didn't really stretch to a bouncer budget so they made themselves comfortable. In the end, I had to scuttle out of the side door wearing a false moustache and beard.

Whilst at East West in Kensington, I once got a call from reception that a girl was here with a tape of her band for me. Knowing full well, she didn't have an appointment but admiring the pluck, I went to reception to relieve her of her demo - after all it might turn out to be the next... The girl turned out to be Justine Frischman with the first Suede demo - she lived over the road and we were the nearest record company to her.

The worst meeting I ever had - and believe me there is some stiff competition - was when my boss at RCA dumped a meeting with Kevin Rowland on me. This was in the early 90s, long before Rowland got off whatever drugs he was doing, did his transvestite thing for Creation and turned into the fairly reliable elder statesman he is now. I'd already heard his new album, on which he reunited with ex-Dexys trombonist 'Big' Jim Patterson. It wasn't great. Mike, my boss at the time, suddenly had to leave the building at short notice and asked me to dep for him. No problem. Into my office walked The Manager, 'Big' Jim, and Kevin. The former Dexys singer was not looking his best: imagine a malnourished Robert De Niro in Cape Fear - furrowed brow, tattoos, clenched fists... frankly he looked like he was ready to do some damage.

We exchange pleasantries and start talking about the project:
Me: I'm a big fan of all the Dexys stuff - I particularly love Don't Stand Me Down, totally underrated album, in my view...
Rowland (staring hard at me): We're not here to talk about the past, we're hear to talk about the future.
Me: Good point
Rowland: I think this album is the best thing I've ever done
Me: Well...
Rowland: What do you think?
At this point I go to flick ash from my freshly-lit cigarette into the ashtray and notice that one I am already smoking is still lying there. Clearly, I'm not doing the best job at masking my fear
Me: Well, I've only listened to it a couple of times...
Rowland: I think ------ is one of the best songs I've written
Me: Well let's put it on now and listen to it
I speed forward to the track in question. We listen to it, Big Jim and The Manager both nodding along far too enthusiastically, Kevin staring intensely at me. It finishes.
Rowland: What do you think?
Me: Well, I have to be honest, Kevin, I don't think it's for me.
Rowland: Well, you're in the wrong job, then.
At this point he stands up almost immediately. Christ, he's going to kill me! No, he's merely standing up to go. The meeting is over. The three of them walk out with only the most cursory of goodbyes. I am clearly, in their eyes, Satan.
A friend of mine who worked in marketing told me later that he watched the three of them marching silently down the RCA corridor towards the exit. As they reached the end of the corridor, Kevin turned to the manager and said: "I think that went quite well."

So anyway, I totally sympathise with anyone being in the meeting host position. None of my recent meetings have been as bad as that Rowland meeting - for starters I am prone to being quite adorable when I'm in the hot chair in front of the desk. But the point I'm trying to make here is that I'm glad it's not me doing the hosting; that it's not me being the grown-up 'in the office.'

In addition to this, everyone in record company offices seems to be suffering at the moment. One independent exec told me that the residual flow of money he used to get from catalogue sales of his artists has completely dried up, there are literally no sales any more, where before there always used to be enough to keep the company afloat. Another complained of the major label he worked for, being only interested in week-one sales, it didn't matter if his albums ended up selling well over time, in the company's eyes they were finished if the Week One over-the-counter didn't hit the mark. A third told me how CD sales were down by almost half on last year's average - where last year he could sell 30K and justify the cost of production and a reasonable marketing campaign, now he sold 15K which meant his production and marketing involved doing it all himself and crossing his fingers. I asked him what the solution was and he smiled and said "Suicide?". I think he was joking but we were several storeys high at the time.

Of course, one reason all my meeting hosts could all have been complaining about the industry so vocally to me is that they wanted to very firmly state that they couldn't give me any freelance work; read my lips, Wardle: LOSE MY NUMBER. I'm glad that thought never crossed my mind as I sat in their offices, I would have have had to resort to weeping and genuflecting.

My four year old daughter Madeleine asked me the other day if she could come and see my office. I'm sure she would be disappointed if she came in because there is no swank: there's only four of us in there, no girls dressed in pink, no exciting drinks machine, bleepy security passes or wall-mounted plasma screens. She would find it dull. I, on the other hand, am punching the air.


  1. Great days eh, Ben! reminds me of a similar time when a young female singer/songwriter popped by my office unexpectedly, when I was working at BMG. I was right in the middle of something, so she left a rather large box with the receptionist. 'Surely too large for a CD I thought?' and it was put into a corner, to be listened to when I returned from my impending 10 day holiday.
    on my return, I noticed a funny, musty-sweet smell in the office. On closer inspection it appeared to be emanating from the box.
    My horror was only fully realised when I cut the package open to be greeted not only by the regulation CD -and reams of glossy pictures- but by a full sized, rotting cream cake in the shape of the girls face, complete with REAL hair and eyebrows...

    ever seen the film Seven??
    Neil x

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