Sunday, 28 September 2008

How I became a drug runner

We were recording in EMI Music's studio in Rathbone Place and we were up against it. The deadline meant that my dual choice of the world's most argumentative band and Europe's most stoned producer were now haunting me day and night. Desperation to get the project finished had driven me to this: five past eleven and speeding my company car to an address in North West London that had been jerkily written down on a scrap of paper by the producer. The address of a dealer. Yes, I had become a drug runner.

As far as I can remember, this was the only time I ever got involved in something along these, er, lines. The cliche about A&R people being the source of drugs for their artists is not true in my experience - as I outlined in Dads on Drugs. In fact I don't think I even knew the type of drug I was being asked to buy that night- on reflection it must have been cocaine, or possibly speed. The the only thing I cared about at the time the necessity for them to stay awake and get the tracks finished.

I've been thinking about this because we are currently looking for producers for one of our bands at the moment and whilst that sentence is one of the most widely used in A&R circles, it made me consider just what exactly the person behind the knobs and dials is for. What is the point of a producer?

And at the most basic level, a producer is the organised person who holds it all together. He (although female producers do exist - I've worked with one - they are very scarce) is the one in charge, a time manager and a people manager. If the producer I described above had actually been doing his job, he would have delivered the tracks to us on time. Or certainly, at the very least, given me advance warning that something was seriously delaying the delivery and we should start making contingency plans around the release date. OK, so every music journalist will talk with a misty-eyed reverence about Phil Spector or Brian Eno or Martin Hannett but the truth is, no one really wants a producer who has to threaten a band with a gun to get a performance. I mean, the chances of that resulting in a good performance can't be high can they? Even Starsailor weren't exactly raving about their 15 minutes in Spector's shadow.

And really, who wants to deal with riddles and games when a studio is over a grand a day? A friend of mine who was a session musician once worked with Brian Eno in the 90s and was creaming himself with excitement on entering the studio. He set up his drums and the great man came up and introduced himself, "Do you know the North Norfolk coast?" he asked. "Yes!" replied my friend, who happens to be a big fan of that part of the world. "Do you know the beach at Holkham?" "Of course - I think it'll be the last thing I see before I die!" he replied, somewhat over enthusiastically. "OK. Well," continued the ex-Roxy Music keyboardist, "remember the car park there, and the gravel walkway up to the edge of the beach?"
"Yes..." replied my friend.
"And when you get there, remember how it opens out into a vista flanked by pine trees with that view?"
"And now there's sand under your feet"
"Er, yes..."
"Well, that's what I want you to do." said Brian, and promptly walked off to brief another musician in similar detail.

OK, so I love Before And Science as much as the next man, and come to think of it, I own almost every Eno album (including Thursday Afternoon), all of which I enjoy, but surely there is a Pseuds Corner element to this sort of production. Or am I being churlish? And Hannett? Well, again, he's got an amazing CV but his reputation is just as much based on being a hedonistic, drug imbiber as it is getting a great drum sound for Joy Division. And after Factory went off with other producers he became just another producer looking for work. Have you heard Box Set Go by the High?

So what am I saying here? Am I advocating the fashionable view that bands should do it themselves? Am I suggesting that in the current cash-strapped climate, that along with being their own record company and marketing themselves, bands should also familiarize themselves with Garageband, get some decent reverb plugins and produce their own music? After all, no one knows the music better than the artists themselves, right?

Well, wrong, really. I mean, obviously artists have always recorded their own stuff and these days they're all familiar with how to produce a pretty decent recording of their music. But what I'm talking about is the thing the public get to hear - the finished work. With very few exceptions (the Friendly Fires album is fantastic and bar one track, entirely self-produced in a shed in St Albans) producers are absolutely essential for this- and now more than ever at a time when record companies can afford to do less and less.

There is a lot of nonsense spoken about the dark art of the record producer. This is partly down to the sort of eccentricity I mention above, but the simple fact is that the best producers are the ones who manage to make the band do what they do best - they're not inflicting any particular sound on the act, although that is the most widely held myth of all. Sure, you can here some similarities in treatment between the Sex Pistols and Roxy Music but you'd be hard pushed to say that Chris Thomas has a sound; likewise Stephen Street or Dave Sitek or Tony Hoffer. They all have a certain taste, it's true, and taste is precisely what is key to all successful producers. There are lots of producers who don't have the luxury of taste - like film directors or actors, many of them go with whatever their agent recommends will be good for their career. And who can blame them? If you were freelance and someone came along and offered you a job for a month with the potential of earning extra dosh if you manage to do work that someone else likes then you would take it. Who cares about the actual noise?

So what do you look for when you choose a producer? Christ, I wish I knew. Artists want to work with their heroes - often other artists, who can sometimes do a good job and sometimes can really let the side down. The answer most A&R people would give if they were honest would be a 'safe pair of hands - someone who isn't going to fuck it up' An A&R friend of mine once said that the best way of getting a decent finished recording if your producer isn't working out, is to master the demo - (ie, make it as loud as possible) - then speed it up a little. It worked for him every time, apparently.

Oh, two exceptions to my rule - dance producers do tend to have a 'sound', they add a bit of themselves to a track like an artist - it's no wonder that so many dance and hip hop producers are artists in their own right. From Dr Dre to Paul Epworth, these folk are introducing elements of their own songwriting and sonic template. An exception to this exception (gotta love that!) is James Ford, who has come from the dance world but is a traditional producer bringing the best out in the bands he works with without inflicting his Simian Mobile Disco sound onto them. No, I haven't worked with him - do you expect me to be that hip?

Most producers I have worked with were adorable - and I'm not just saying that, they really were. And this, I think is the key to making it long term in the record production business - you have to have people skills - if you have no emotional intelligence how are you going to get good performances from your musicians? Well, you know what Spector would say to that...

My first project, which is the one I described in the opening paragraph, was in many ways a necessary rite of passage. With hindsight, the musicians weren't really at fault- they were a naive young band, of course they didn't know what they were doing and were easily impressed by the idea of a rebel behind the console. The mere memory of this producer's arrogant, chain smoking presence still makes me shudder. I would ask him how he did certain things in the studio out of genuine interest and he would tap his nose and say, "trade secret... very complicated" and then laugh in a strange, high-pitched way that made me want to punch him into submission. Why didn't you fire him? I hear you ask. Good point, naivety on my part I think. I really didn't know what I was doing. In the end I did use another producer but by then the damage was done, the band had really 'bonded' with whiney, druggy man and they insisted on using him to record what of course turned out to be their last single.

The dealer turned out to be a bit of a disappointment - far from being an evil looking man dressed as a clown or something, he turned out to be a small, balding NME journalist. Ah well. Back at the studio, I was greeted by a fug of dopey air and not a single finished track. I remember noticing a copy of the recently-released CD of Sgt Peppers lying on a swivel chair. I handed over the substances to the producer, who muttered an indifferent thanks and then I drove home with a feeling familiar to all A&R people, - how do I get this lot out of my life really fast?

Later after the album was mastered and had limped into the shops, I discovered the idiot had sampled a track from that Beatles' CD. Possibly out of spite, I don't know. Luckily the band were never successful enough for anyone to notice. But it was all worth it because I had learned the most important A&R lesson: always work with a proper producer.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Why I never got my hands on a Hirst

It was Joe Strummer who told me the news that they were going to wind up the company: "It's not working out - none of us can agree on anything - apart from that smoking's really good." Fair play to them though, it was the best redundancy I've ever had - being let go by the lead singer of the Clash. All the directors and myself had just consumed a massive kebab lunch at Efe's on Great Titchfield St ("These are my people!" Joe had said, referring to his childhood spent in Turkey) - it was clearly a planned coup.

I'm reminded of that time - the time, as I think I have mentioned here before, when I briefly ran a label for Damien Hirst and rock pals Alex James and Joe Strummer - because the artist is of course in the news again this week for being £111 million richer. Not so much Golden Calf as golden goose. I'm also doing some work at another music web site based not far from the offices where the label was based, so I get reminded of the sandwich bars I used to go to, where I used to sit and wonder what the hell I was doing with my life. What?! I hear you say. Surely running a label for the world's most groundbreaking and successful living artist, your childhood hero from the Clash and the extremely personable bass player from Blur must have been a dream job! And initially it did seem like that was how it was going to be. But despite all the complicated stuff that I won't bore you with, the basic problem was that, as Joe rightly pointed out, they couldn't agree on anything - basic things like what type of music to sign, for example, were swept under a BonViveur's carpet with the oft repeated call of "Get on board!" An expression I heard Hirst use in a interview with Mark Lawson only the other day. I duly got on board but it was more Titantic than Double Deckers.

My job initially, was of course A&R but very quickly it became apparent that the job was everything but that; the A&R part, i.e. the deciding on what music we were going to put out, was up to the directors. And the director with the most in-your-face charisma was not Joe or Alex or even Damien - although they clearly put up some stiff competition No, the man who had that in spades was Lily Allen's dad, Keith.

Keith of course, had fronted the hugely successful Fat Les record Vindaloo which Telstar had released earlier that year to tie in with the 1998 World Cup. Now Keith had another event-related idea for Fat Les and the event this time was Christmas. Now the label name Turtleneck was actually going to become a real label. Of course I blame myself for everything that went wrong - you should know by now that I'm that sort of person. Clearly, the record was not a patch on Vindaloo in terms of pop simplicity or conceptual appeal but somehow I got swept along on the tide of Keith's enthusiasm. We all did. Well, actually, no, not all of us. Damien, didn't like it and said so. But he was outvoted. And very quickly, Keith's sketchy idea, written with Roland Rivron was fleshed out with Strummer on guitar, Alex on bass, Bryan Ferry and The The producer Bruce Lampcov behind the desk at Air Studios - and soon after Paul Kaye, David Walliams and Matt Lucas and a host of other soon-be-famous faces appeared in the meticulously directed (by Keith) video.

Naughty Christmas (Goblin In The Office) was no one's finest hour, it must be said. But we were all so wrapped up in it at the time that it felt like it could easily emulate Vindaloo and be embraced by a nation obsessed with the idea of cheesy Christmas past: Mary & Joseph and Morecombe & Wise as Squeeze once sang. After all, everyone can identify with making a fool of oneself at the office party. Actually, if the record had contained a fraction of the ideas contained in the video (which you must have a look at if you haven't yet - the quality on the above link is terrible but you'll get the idea) we would have been away. But even though you could hardly accuse Vindaloo of being lyrically verbose, Naughty Christmas went so far as to actually swerve the use of the word Christmas. Yes, that's right, we released a Christmas single which didn't actually mention the word Christmas. It's amazing we even got Woolworth's to stock it.

By the time Christmas arrived it was all over. We'd actually sold quite a few records - about 40,000 or something - a huge amount by today's standards and Keith's tireless self-promotion had done more than any amount of creative pr could do and made us a weeky fixture on LWT's chart show. But compared to the curry record which had sold a quarter of a million and of course, it also didn't have the cache of being connected with football. As a proud football ignoramus, I am always amazed at how much crassness is accepted in the name of the 'beautiful game' - do you really enjoy wearing all those synthetic fibres advertising airlines you've never flown or travel companies who leave you stranded?

At Damien Hirst's own office Christmas party - a relaxed affair at a lovely restaurant on the Farringdon Road, it was clear that we - the record label - were the runt of the Hirst litter. Everyone at Damien's company, Science, obviously thought he was wasting his money but actually he displayed a canny commercial nous that no one I've ever met in the music business had. At the marketing meeting I put together to discuss the campaign for Naughty Christmas, as distributer, plugger, PR and record company sat round the table discussing how many copies we thought we should manufacture and where we should stock them, Damien said, "Why don't we just make one fucking record and sell it for a million quid?" At the time everyone laughed indulgently: yes, very funny, Mr Hirst, you may not know much about music but you know what you like... Stick to your formaldehyde, sonny, let us professionals handle the campaign. What fools we were! Had we done exactly what he said we would have made a load of money and probably still got played on Radio 1. As it was, in the words of, oh probably Alex James, Naughty Christmas was "No Vindaloo".

Sitting gobbling quality chops at that Christmas party, with our record already a certified disappointment, I looked around the room and my eye alighted on a table of young, hipsterish folk who were about 15 years younger than all the alleged 30-somethings in the room. "Who are they?" I asked Damien's wife,"Them? Oh they're the spot-painters." Up until then I hadn't realised what almost everyone now knows now about Hirst's production line approach: he mass produces art in a way that record companies once made singles, whilst advocating making one copy of a record and selling it like an old master. Talk about being ahead of his time. And that's why last week, on exactly the same day that the know-it-all financial markets went tits up and all those people in their safe, proper jobs were made redundant, Damien added a quiet £111 million to his fortune.

If only he'd shown as much genius in choosing the music. That was supposed to be my job and, as I say. I blame myself for not putting my foot down and saying - "listen, what about the bubbly-haired singer we saw at the Bull & Gate? - he's good, a bit rubbish looking, I grant you, but he's got a great voice!" No, we never signed Coldplay. You can take a Hirst to water but you can't make it drink. And I did take the guys to shows - Damien was keen on Welsh indie janglers Murray The Hump and Keith came along to see them at the now defunct Falcon in Camden. Within two songs, he'd managed, via semi-complementary heckling, to divert attention from the band to himself. Murray the Hump didn't stand a chance after that. Keith just wanted to sign himself. Strummer had a huge musical knowledge but seemed pretty wrapped up with getting the Mescaleros together and never brought anything to the table other than a noble world music yen - he wanted us to sign something unusual. Alex, like me, wanted to get a cool indie band on the label - partly because that was his taste I think, and partly because he knew me best and was confident that that was what I could deliver. And Damien? Damien wanted to sign his mate Bez. I know, it sounds really prosaic, doesn't it - somehow you hope he would have had some ideas involving wild animals braying mixed with the sound of an organ transplant, all produced by Eno and the Aphex Twin. But no, Hirst plumped for the Freaky Dancer.

We once all went up to see Bez's band BMW (not sure how he planned on convincing the Bavarian car giant that they should share the name with him) in Manchester and they were more akin to a Skoda. After the gig we ended up in some house in Chorlton Cum Hardy, surrounded by some very frightening looking Mancunians who were overly keen on establishing exactly how much we going to sign BMW for. The next morning, the bloke I ran the label with, Alan, who had brought an disturbing amount of drugs with him, was getting no reply when he tried to phone Damien's room in the Britannia so he got the lift down to Hirst's floor to see if the great man was up yet - after all we had a train to catch. When he got to the room the door was ajar."Damien?" he tentatively asked before pushing it open. Instead of Hirst, there in the middle of the room was Bez - doing the Bez Dance! IN TOTAL SILENCE. Alan stood watching him for a moment before the Happy Monday noticed him. He stopped, gave him a a psychotic smile and said, "Alright mate... hey - you got any more of that stuff you ad last night?"

After Christmas , Alan and I returned to the Turtleneck office but it was obvious things weren't going to last much longer. Frankly, I couldn't wait for them to end. Working with hedonistic celebrities was like being a parent waiting in the car outside a party while your kids are inside having a great time. Actually, come to think of it I did wait outside the Groucho club several times. As I said earlier, I heard Damien being interviewed on the Front Row last week and he sounds a lot more mellow than he did in those days. Back then I remember thinking that if he hadn't done art he surely would have gone into some branch of entertainment, he had a wit quicker than most and an uncanny perceptiveness. On looking through a bunch of Polaroids that some of us had taken in the office, he paused on one of me standing on a table pouting into the camera. He looked up and said to me,"how old were you when your dad left home?"

I don't have many regrets in life but I must say, I do wish I'd left Turtleneck with some hard evidence that I'd worked for those guys. The obvious and most sensible thing would have been one of Damien's numerous sketches or doodlings that he did on postcards. I remember Alan nabbed one at the time and I think I may have mocked him for it. It's probably worth a few quid now. But actually what I really regret not saving, is nothing Hirst created at all. All I wish I had was a fax. I wrote the directors' biographies for the Turtleneck website (yes, we were cutting edge in 1998!) and everyone was fine with what I wrote. Everyone except Joe - he sent me a beautifully written three page fax. I say beautifully written in the sense that it was the same characterful handwriting you remember from various Clash books which reproduce it. But it was also beautiful in the sense that he managed to tell me he didn't like what I'd written about him (for example he objected to being cited for influencing U2, "I hate those guys") whilst being charming and complementary. And it was full of musical opinion too.

After Strummer told me that Turtleneck was all over, he suggested we go to the pub. And over several pints of fighting lager, presumably because he thought he owed it to me, Joe regaled me with war stories from the early days of the Clash. I went home with one less career opportunity but happier than I'd been in months. Yes, I wish I'd kept that fax more than any Hirst work.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

I'm all ears

I woke up in a hotel room on my own. It was dark and there was a ringing sound - kind of distant but very distinct. Where was it coming from? I lay there and thought about things, the mind did its conversational tricks, jumping from one subject to another and gradually drowsiness descended again. But just as I was about to drop off, the noise reappeared. What the hell was it? I leaped out of bed and drew the curtains - maybe it was a street light with faulty wiring. Yes, that was bound to be it. Outside it was deathly quiet, I wasn't used to this of course, living in Camden above the World's End pub, silence was not in great supply; even in the hours when everyone else in London slept, Camden High Street played host to all the world's nomadic insomniacs. And frequently it was my own friends, back from some fresh Britpop hell at five in the morning and wired out of all proportion to the event, it was a virtual no-brainer to pop by Ben's and see what he was up to. As if he'd be sleeping! Here in Southwold though, the streets were deserted by six and now, at four in the morning, the silence swallowed everything. Except, of course, there was no silence, there was only this fucking ringing.

That was how I discovered I had tinnitus. I joke about it now of course, but even writing about just then, brought back the terror. It was like discovering I had a rare disease that no one knew much about and really there was nothing I could do. With the added horror that my job - at that time I was beginning a run of A&R success with Indolent Records - depended on my ability to hear things. Scary.

I mention it now mainly because I read that news last Friday about the RIND survey which claims that half the 2700 people they interviewed said they had damaged their ears listening to loud music. And 80% of them had experienced ringing or the temporary reduction in hearing. I know I don't normally get terribly earnest in this blog but that is pretty worrying isn't it? I mean, fair enough for some A&R person to suffer a bit, after all, he's listening to music all day and if he's not listening to music he's on the phone the rest of the time (this was of course in the days before email, texting and Myspace). But this is normal people, kids who go to see bands or to festivals for fun. We all remember coming home from our first gigs with that exciting ringing in the ears - it was all part of the experience, it was a rite of passage.

There were two surprises in store for me when I discovered I had tinnitus. The first surprise is that doctors don't actually know what causes it, they kind of have an idea that it's the tiny hairs inside your ear canal getting permanently flattened by excessive noise but they're just guessing. There could be psychological as well as physiological factors that cause it. And along with the ignorance of causes goes the inability to do anything about it. I was lucky enough to have medical insurance at the time and I B-lined it straight to Harley Street. The Ear, Nose and Throat doctor there - or surgeon to be precise - was a Harley Street cliché, complete with clipped vowels and a deeply patronising manner. He advised me to "get used to it" a tip which I understandably felt reluctant to pay for. He did though, confirm that the sound I had - a very faint whine, as if someone in the room next door was rubbing their wet finger around the rim of a wine glass - was tinnitus, which at least prevented my natural hypochondria from imagining I had something much worse. The second thing I discovered, once equipped with the knowledge that I had it for life, was a good thing: Geraldine Daly.

The surgeon's other advice was that you I should wear protection whenever I went to gigs. What's the point? I probably countered, Surely I'm too late, the horse has left the stable etc. Well, yes but you can easily build on hearing problems, so I decided to treat my ears with the respect they deserved. After all, they were the keys to my fortune - they had helped me sign Sleeper (stop giggling at the back). So the patronising ENT surgeon sent me to a neighbouring Harley St practice, which specialised in making ear plugs and it was there that I met with my nice surprise.

Geraldine Daly is a music business legend. You won't find any articles in Mojo or Q about her, in fact you won't even find out much online about her, but her subtle influence in written into the fabric of the UK music business. I was shell-shocked when I first went up in the tiny old fashioned cage lift to the top floor of the Harley St building where she is based. After seeing the surgeon I was full of fear and loathing and consequently expecting to meet another indifferent professional who would sell me an ugly, malfunctioning piece of rubbish. Instead I met a dark-haired, petite lady with a favourite-auntie-like demeanor and a gorgeous, singsong Irish accent. "Oh poor you," she said, after I had given her the lowdown on my position, as if I was a family friend and it was the first time she'd heard this sort of story,"let's make you a good pair of plugs so you can't do yourself anymore damage."

I won't go into the detail of the plugs you get from her other than to say I still wear them - not all the time, it's true, sometimes the sound at shows is fairly reasonable (unless I really am going deaf) But most of the time I do wear them, they cut out 15db and crucially don't remove any of the top end which is what those crappy high street earplugs do, rendering everything into a muffled blur and not giving you any real protection anyway. I also used to have a pair of 30db ones, which I would wear in rehearsal and showcase rooms. Frankly, I would advise all drummers to get a pair immediately because it's those hi-hats sizzling away constantly that will do for the ears.

I've been back and forth to Geraldine many times since then - mainly to get replacement mouldings (the ear canal does change shape over time) and she's is always a treat to see - more often than not she will say, "Oh I had that XXXXXX in last week, do you know him?" And it will be the singer of a huge British band or the guitarist from a legendary metal band and she'll tell me about their hearing problems and always say how very lovely they are even if their public reputation depends on scariness or arrogance. I'm convinced she once told me that she'd made plugs for a very famous warty bass-playing who always bangs on about how loud he likes everything to be but I might be imagining it. Frequently, she will have seen one of my colleagues - the more successful the music exec, seemingly the more varieties of different plugs they will be having made. The fashion now seems to be getting plugs which fit over your iPod headphones. Hmm...

But what is fascinating is that she single-handedly and seemingly effortlessly has the monopoly on making and servicing ear plugs for the industry. There is no one else - as far as I know - who anyone uses in the UK. And who can blame them? Her bedside manner is too good! You'd be surprised how many industry people have plugs now - and even more surprised how many bands do too. Most of them are protecting their hearing, some of them (like Pete Townshend, Andy Partridge etc) have spoken publicly about it and many other much younger stars who have not, are dealing with tinnitus.

I'm loathe to say this but the ENT surgeon was right. After a harrowing six months back in the mid 90s, where I barely slept a night, I did gradually get used to the tinnitus. I used to de-tune an old radio to white noise and this would take my mind away from focusing on the whine. Eventually I stopped using the radio and now I only notice it very occasionally. Rarely does it give me the stomach-leaping fear that it initially did. My hearing is slightly less good in the left ear, which ironically I don't put down to rock & pop music per se but a decade of listening to managers talking bollocks to me down the phone.

So when I read reports like the one last week, I'm reminded of how I felt when I thought the game was up with my ears, and my heart goes out to anyone who may be in those early stages. Amusing though it may sound, I blame shoegazing for it. I'm convinced that my problems started back in the early nineties when I saw My Bloody Valentine at Cambridge Corn Exchange - the entire crowd stepped back as one when that wall of noise first came. I'd never been their biggest fan, frankly, but I did think that was just taking the piss out of the audience. So those pictures of the latest MBV crowds standing in front of the stage with their hands over their ears brought it all back. And actually, when you hear that both Kevin Shields (who now has tinnitus himself) and their crew were all wearing earplugs, you have to start to question the point of it.

Sermon over, I'll throw in some poo gags next week.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

We've signed a fucking chicken!

I'm back in our office. No one else is here, it would be deathly quiet were I not listening to Anthony & The Johnsons: The Disco Album and I'm wondering where summer has gone - not only is it cascading with rain outside, but it's the third of September, my brother's birthday, always the start of autumn in my book, was yesterday, my daughter started big school today and Isosceles are mixing their next single as I write. I should be excited about everything but I've got that going-back-to-school feeling that I always get around this time of year.

It's an odd thing being your own boss. I mean, obviously I'm not really my own boss - that's my wife's job, she really the one in charge - but I mean, not having a permanent job other than the one of managing the bands and doing freelance writing means that it's very easy to suddenly discover I've spent two hours online finding out how many skinny tie albums from 1978 I still don't own ... (unbelievably I still don't have The Cars debut!). I'm back here after almost a month working on that music web site. I may be back there next week too because another thing I keep discovering as my own boss is that I'm not paying myself any wages. Meet the old boss, same as the new boss, as they say.

Back to school, back to work, it's the same deal - working to other people's agenda's. My daughter expressed the same feeling about going back to school: but the teachers will make us do things! (it was much better expressed than that, but like all child aphorisms, if you don't write it down immediately, the genius is gone). But it's true: the teachers will make us do things and sometimes, there's other things we'd rather be up to. Although obviously Maddy would consider surfing the web for new wave CDs a waste of time. How much has she got to learn?

But how much have I got to learn too? I'd love to make it being freelance, being my own boss, but increasingly I feel torn between getting a job so I can afford to carry on. I went out with my friend Tony Fletcher a couple of weeks ago, who as far as I know hasn't had a proper, salaried job since we first met 15 years ago while he was doing A&R for an American record company. Tony's a proper writer - always has been, even when he was an A&R man. When he was a teenager, inspired by his love of The Jam, he wrote a fanzine called Jamming, which ended up becoming a proper magazine and he now has a bestselling book about Keith Moon under his belt. He lives in the States and we don't see each other that often, so we were trying to catch up over the course of this one evening. The last time we met was about a year and a half before when a band I was A&Ring were supporting Radio 4, whom he was managing at the time. And of course, despite both of us having a good idea of the general content of our respective lives due to the blogs, (Tony's, iJamming, has been going since before they were called blogs) despite this, there was bloody loads to tell each other and added to this, I'd kind of double booked Tony with another friend I hadn't seen for ages. This friend, David, is a senior lawyer at a major record label who is one of the funniest men I know. Frankly, I think he's wasted in law and in an ideal world would be playing piano in a bar by night and writing poetry by day. He arrived in the pub where Tony and I were, accompanied by a beautiful Russian blonde. "She's not my girlfriend," he protested. Anyway, the girl wisely left us when we did what 40-something blokes do when they're having a night out: went for a curry.

David, of course, has a salaried job and is doing very nicely, but ultimately he and everyone at the label is in some way beholden to X-Factor and the whims of Simon Cowell. Cowell's empire Syco is one of the few record labels which doesn't seem to be affected by dwindling sales. A friend of mine at Sony told me that Cowell stood up in a recent meeting and, with his usual iconoclasm, suggested that he had no idea what all this fuss about illegal downloads was - his sales were not affected in the slightest. I suspect this is because the demographic who listen to Leona Lewis et al are either children or middle aged parents who haven't fully grasped the potential of the Internet yet. David told us - possibly ironically - that he has to organise his holidays around the periods of the year when X-Factor is not happening. The rest of the year is kept busy because he has to do deals with every single one of the finalists so that Syco have the rights sewn up for the winners. And remember, X-Factor is now a global phenomenon and Sony/BMG have the international rights to it - so all of David's colleagues around Europe are doing the same thing. Apparently someone in France had called David earlier to compare notes on how they were getting on. "Signed anyone interesting?" he asked, the word out was the French favorite was some sort of poultry-themed act. "we have signed nothing!" they lamented,"apart from a fucking chicken!" Now there's job satisfaction for you.

When I was at RCA, I ended up in an office next to Simon Cowell. This was before he was Simon Cowell, of course, but even back in the 1780s he was riding high in the charts with Robson & Jerome as well as scraping the bargain bins with Steve Coogan. And he always knew what he was doing. Once in an A&R meeting he played a single (possibly by Zig & Zag, I can't be certain), and possibly because these were the days when singles were format crazy, with 2 CDs being the mode du jour, I asked him what he was going to put on the b sides, "I don't know, darling, but let's be honest, who cares?" he answered quite reasonably. He was always a very polite man - never the bad-tempered tyrant he plays on the telly.

So Tony, David and myself finished the vadai, the dosai and the vases of Cobra and wandered off down Cleveland St to find a tube station. Not that it's a question that anyone could reasonably answer but I wondered who is happier?- David, being an important lawyer but wanting to write poetry and or Tony, being a published writer but, like all writers, not knowing if the next book will be as successful as the last. The security of a salary versus the freedom of self-employment.

One thing I've noticed is if you are your own boss, things tend to grind to a halt if you don't constantly MAKE STUFF HAPPEN. You have to be permanently phoning and emailing and well... selling. Occasionally someone will return you call, offer a gig and occasionally send you a cheque. I invoiced that advertising agency yesterday - you know, the ones who are doing the acne ad with Isosceles' song. It felt bizarre - to be invoicing somebody else as opposed to be weeping over piles of unpaid invoices from others. It was such new territory that I forget to even put in an address. They phoned me today asking where they should send the cheque.

If my wife was here, she would probably have spotted my kindergarten error. I wasn't joking when I said she was the boss - it's not that she's always right, it's just that she has sufficient distance from the stuff I do to see the wood from the trees. It would of course be a nightmare if she really was my boss - my hairdresser mate told me about a colleague of his who went out with the female owner of the salon where he worked: his girlfriend was literally his boss. He was, apparently, a bit too fond of the old Charlie & Lola and prone to being a bit moody as well. After one particularly shouty day, she summoned him into her office and told him that his work was less than satisfactory, his client-base was dwindling and the other stylists were finding him hard to be around - in short he should find another job. He was speechless, and just as he was about to walk out of her office, she added, "Oh, and by the way, I'm pregnant - see you back at the flat."

There's another story about the same hairdresser and a ill-fated weekend trip to Spain with 'the lads' but I'll save that for another time. I've got to go off and make some things happen...