Saturday, 14 June 2008

Inside the record company cauldron...

"We'll know tomorrow. They're reducing all the EMI A&R teams..."

On Wednesday, a friend of mine from EMI and I sit outside in dappled Kensington sunlight eating cake on a bench in the park behind the church. It's an idyllic scene - and the cakes are unbelievable, mine a chocolate one oozing with Bailey's cream - but the conversation is shot through with dread. My friend will be OK, we think, but there will be more people out of work and those that are left will be multi-tasking and cutting corners.

Just before this, I had a cup of tea with another pal who works over the road at Warners. Truly, Kensington High Street has become record company mile: with Sony BMG moving into the old Derry & Toms building above Marks and Spencers, the full major line will be complete with EMI/Virgin at one end, leading to the Universal Building (or Death Star, as it's widely known), then Sony BMG, then Atlantic in the Electric Lighting Station just past the old Kensington Market (now decimated into a branch of PC World). But left on the High St and a short walk up Church St, is the other Warners building, housing most of the old WEA group.

I drink tea with my Warners pal in his office, plastered with the artwork trophies of a successful music industry fella. He tells me how he used to be based at the Electric Lighting Station, working for Atlantic but has been moved to the Church St office to work for all of the labels. He rarely gets out of the building until 8pm. We were going to go out tonight but he needs a night in - and frankly who can blame him? He very generously gives me a pile of Warners CDs, we say goodbye and arrange to meet next week instead. As I walk out I look around the open plan office and sense something different... what is it? It dawns on me as I'm standing in the lift going down: there was no music playing.

If there is one thing that every record company office used to have in common, whether it was Creation or Interscope or Fierce Panda, it was that everyone who worked there loved music and was excited about the roster - there was a sense of possession over the artists that were currently being developed. Even artists who were not particularly popular with the staff were supported because everyone felt part of the team. It's a cliche but like all cliches, it's true: it wasn't a job, it was a lifestyle. I worked at East West (now rebranded Atlantic) in the 90s and the excitement over a new Simply Red album wasn't that the staff were that keen on hearing the Ginger Prince's new material (although some obviously were) but rather that it was going to sell in bucketloads and it's exciting selling records, being popular. Plus, there would be a party and and everyone would benefit in some way at the end of the year; we all felt a part of it, whether this was mistaken or not. The faces on the members of staff I passed on my way out today seemed disengaged and kind of, well, disappointed. They were all attractive, young people and had probably punched the air when they landed a job at a legendary place like Warners - many of them had probably got in via the Warners Graduate Trainee Scheme. Yes, Graduate Trainee Scheme: working at a record company is now just another career option, somewhere between accountancy and retail management. When I first got my job at Warners my mum had the classic "but when are you going to get a proper job?" reaction, and that was just how I wanted it. Working at a record company was something you did for the love of it, not for the career, not for any fiscal gain - it was an extension of your hobby.

My friend Andy who's worked at record company's longer than me, was looking to take on a junior member of staff a few years ago and had amassed a number of CVs from enthusiastic fanzine writers, club promoters and DJs. He took these to his HR department, who by return gave him a pile of CVs from candidates who had applied through the Graduate Trainee Scheme. These applicants were all finishing their degrees, possibly Media Studies, and were looking for their first job on the media career ladder. "But, what about taking on someone who is already out there doing it, someone with life skills, someone who may not have a degree but has a degree of swagger and originality?"
"We'll consider it, but we'd really rather you employed a graduate, Andy."
I can't remember what the outcome was, but it doesn't matter. The proof of who won the argument was in the faces on the graduates sitting in front of computers today. They were probably all thinking: "Wish I'd gone into the film industry, this is rubbish."

Next day I found myself back in Kensington seeing a friend at EMI Music Publishing. Unbelievably, they have finally moved from their old Tin Pan Alley headquarters on Charing Cross Road and shacked up with Terra Firma in EMI headquarters in Wrights Lane - adding further evidence that there really is only one remaining address for the music business. Frankly, I was amazed they let me through the door after the Guardian article, but soon I found myself sitting next to a 8 ft high replica of a Gibson Les Paul in the reception area. Say what you like about Guy Hands and co, they know how to do reception - all the latest magazines, a water cooler, comfy sofas in bright surroundings. In the Warner Building the day before, I sat in the cramped, murky reception with it's apologetically small plasma screen on the wall and picked through dog-eared copies of Billboard and Variety. Eventually I thought I had found something - a copy of the NME. It turned out to be from February. It was like being at the dentist.

Simon and I had lunch in EMI's canteen. Actually, to call it a canteen does it a disservice. It is a splendid place to have lunch. The other EMI Building at the Hammersmith end of the road has a canteen, which is much more like what you imagine: functional, a bit lived-in. Actually, if you ever find yourself having a snack in it - and let's be frank, who knows how much longer you'll have the opportunity - make sure you have a good look at the balustrade which runs along its upper level - it was taken from the old EMI building in Manchester Square and is the very one that four young lads from Merseyside leaned over on the cover of their first album.

The canteen in the Wrights Lane building is ultra modern; an open quadrangle or piazza between the interior sides of the glass tower, it offers three choices of lunch all at very reasonable prices. I'd happily have lunch here every day, but sooner or later Guy Hands would catch on, I'm sure.

Simon's office was like my friend's at Warners only it was virtually wallpapered in 7" single sleeves from the 70s, 80s and 90s. By way of explanation, he told me how he'd been charged with procuring singles for a jukebox that the company were going to present to Mr Hands as some sort of welcome gift. Each 7" single had to be a song or artist that had been number one for EMI publishing or records - Wuthering Heights, Summer Holiday, Country House etc.

He had scoured Record and Tape Exchange and Beanos (he got paid to do this! I would have done it for free - possibly even paid some cash upfront.) and noticing that some of the singles didn't have the big holes in the middle that you need to make them jukebox-compatible, discovered that Beanos have a hole-stamping machine especially for this, which they oiled-up for him. I don't know why this warms my heart me but it does.

Anyway, the singles were loaded onto the jukebox and the staff lined up to present their new leader with his trophy. Hands walked in, expressed gratitude and proceeded to randomly select a 7". It plopped onto the turntable and Terra Firma and EMI staff alike were greeted with the dulcet tones of Mick Hucknell's voice singing his well-known choice from EMI/Windswept Pacific's catalogue, Money's Too Tight (To Mention). The Ginger Prince strikes again.

Back on the park bench eating the cake with my other EMI A&R pal, I mention the Scottish Band to him and try to tell him how well they are doing. He smiles indulgently but I sense the same slightly wistful look that I saw on the graduates' faces at Warners. He cannot care about any new music until he knows there is a point to it, until he knows if he can out there again and get something signed and make a great record with them. Until he knows he still has a job.

And maybe that's how the whole record business feels right now - do they have jobs? Is there a business? Let's hope so, for the Sb's sake.


  1. First up, publishing a blog at 3.07am is worrying me Ben. Maddy up? If so, it's tales of Beatrix Potter you need, not stories about Guy Hands.

    But now you mention the nice Mr H and his wonderfully apposite jukebox selection at the EMI welcoming shindig, it reminds me of a (possibly made-up) BBC tale. Oct 14 1977 - word comes in that Bing Crosby has just played his final round of golf, dying on the 18th green with the words "fellas, that was a great round of golf". Confirmation arrives just in time for the midnight news. Over at Radio 2, a studio hand sprints to the quaintly-named "grams library", grabs the first 'best of Bing' he can find and arrives just in time for the end of the bulletin. Seamlessly, the DJ picks up the theme, lowering his voice to 'reverential and sombre' pitch. "Well, we heard there sad news about the king if the crooners...Bing, we'll miss you". At which point the needle drops and Mr Crosby sings, as if from the other side, "Heaven, I'm in heaven..."

  2. I'm still very impressed that you have the energy to do all the meetings, stay out late, drink booze AND have a family!

  3. Crikey, the comment about the dead-eyed look on the Graduate Training Scheme kids' faces really strikes a chord. I worked (well, temped) at EastWest in the late 90s - started the day they sacked the entire promotions department and brought in Island's team - and it put me off working at big companies forever. I suppose I can attribute starting my own business to those five months of sheer boredom.

  4. East West in the nineties. Did you ever work with the fantastic Fat Lady Sings?

    Enjoy reading the blog by the way.

  5. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  6. Oh wow, this got every one going - fascinating input mixed with a good read.