Thursday, 24 July 2008

You can get out anytime you want, but you can never leave

A friend of mine just ran into Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle of The Buzzcocks outside his local pub off the Camden Road. "Hello guys, " he said - he's quite forward, my friend, he's a hairdresser and hugely adept at making people feel at ease, even when, like me, they don't have a lot of hair to cut, "Hello guys," he said,"just wanted to say that I've always been a big fan of your stuff, ever since I saw you at Eric's in Liverpool in 1977..."

Diggle looked at him and supped his pint,"Thanks mate," he said, then he gestured over to Shelley who was in conversation with someone else; he shook his head disbelievingly and slightly regretfully, "thirty two fucking years..."

We've all been at it years though haven't we? Well, I have. And it's funny, after a while it feels like I've been in it as long as people I used to look up to or buy records by. I just had another meeting with the 80s pop star and he just seemed the same age as me. Possibly younger. And yesterday I had a meeting with the guy who was my first boss. He's been in the music business, he said "for over 20 years..." Actually, I felt like saying to him - it's me that's been in it for about 20 years (20 years this autumn to be precise) you, sir, have been in it almost 30. But there he is still looking like I remember him 20 years before, a few more 'laughter lines' (on second thoughts, to paraphrase George Melly's remark to Mick Jagger, nothing's that funny) but he's looks young. Younger than me, I'd wager. And he's sitting in an office surrounded by tight-trousered boys and girls, a man in his fifth decade, still wearing Converse and having an opinion about Foals and Jo Lean And The Jing Jang Jong. Which is what you do in the music business - what else are you going to do?

I say this because I've always thought this way: what else am I going to do? What do musicians do who used to be in bands who have to go off and do something else? Well, increasingly, they reform the same bands and go off and make more money than they made first time round by carefully planned nostalgia shows - whether you're Shed Seven or The Love Affair, you can be your own tribute band at the drop of a hat these days and no one cares how old you are. In fact it's probably reassuring for the stooping, bespectacled audience to see how ancient everyone is on stage while the music makes them feel young again. When the Sex Pistols reformed in the mid-nineties, there was a purists' outcry at the terrible sacrilege and you know what? that Finsbury Park show was fucking amazing - it was, and you can tell I really mean it man, because I'm using a swear word. After Lydon came on and announced, "Fat, Forty and Back!" the context was set, every song was played pitch perfect and it was hugely entertaining. Alan McGee agreed, I remember, and published a full page NME advert declaring how great it was to gainsay the critical consensus. At the time I was running Indolent - a much smaller operation than Creation - and we published a quarter page ad saying how we felt the same way but didn't have as much cash as McGee.

The point is that now, no one cares and indeed, the Pistols are considered one of the more reliable nights out in a growing genre. Soon, we'll have bands performing the work of the greats with no attendant tribute-band irony - it's already happening with Ron Geesin having performed the Atom Heart Mother suite a couple of weeks ago and joined onstage by Dave Gilmour. My prediction is that pop records will become like classical pieces and be performed in various ways either in musicals with Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan upping the ante or increasingly in much more highbrow productions, involving new musicians interpreting them .

But what else do ex-music business people do if they give it up altogether? Of course, if they've earned a lot of money then clearly they don't have to do anything - they can go the way of the Ridgely, who must be the luckiest man in pop - a parting gift from George of half the publishing on his best song and bingo, he can surf the rest of his life or John Deacon, who lives in Putney, enjoys a round of golf, and is the proud owner of 65 million pounds. But the rest of them... us, what do we do? Here are some examples from the past:

Press PR person - Opened a cattery in Cornwall.
Record Producer - Took a new media job and never again produced a record by Bryan Ferry
A&R man - Signed James then did a joinery degree and became a carpenter
A&R woman - Left after signing the Charlatans and studied psychology
Guitarist of Haircut 100 - Became a tree surgeon
Founder of Deceptive Records - Became a secondary school teacher
Guitarist of Echobelly - Got a job in second hand record shop (OK, so she stayed in the music business...)

But you know what, writing that list took a while - and I had help. There must be loads more ex-music industry folk who jumped ship but most of them, well, they're still there as far as I know. I left music and worked for six years in new media, but on my return, I was astonished at how little had changed - I mean, the same producer managers, the same studio managers, the same mastering engineers, and so many of the same faces in publishing and record companies, albeit many of those faces jowlier and more florid. Despite the massive changes brought about by the Internet nothing, it seemed, had changed - indeed, the top studios were still charging the same daily rate that they had been charging in the mid-90s. But strangely enough, within a few months of my return, quite possibly because of my return, things began to unravel. First, the singles chart started accepting downloads without a physical format which recognised how little meaning was left in it. Then as if to concur with this, Top Of The Pops got axed, after which the legendary Townhouse Studios closed down, followed by a whole load of residential studios (including the fantastic Jacobs in Farnham) Even Eden, where I managed to record some of the second Rakes album, closed down shortly after I used it. I found this particularly sad as my favourite album of all time was recorded there. Tales of Bay City Rollers fans camping outside in the 70s will make a nice story for whichever property developer turns it into luxury flats.

Eventually, as we all know, the very record company where I was working became a victim too and everyone was made redundant. I recently went to a reunion of sorts and many of the old V2 staff were there. I didn't do an actual straw poll of which of them was still working in music but I'm fairly sure most of them are. Unless their Facebooks are fiction, they've all gone on to work in what remains of the record industry - Domino, XL, Universal, SonyBMG... So still nothing really has changed. And maybe nothing will. Just like the Buzzcocks still going steady, in twenty more years we'll all be supping pints, raising our eyebrows and shaking our heads in disbelief at where all the time went.


  1. So, that's it - It's All Your Fault!

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