Sunday, 23 November 2008

Out on the town

The bloke in front is really annoying me now. Earlier on during the set, he was a mild irritation - a fly buzzing in the background, occasionally knocking against the windowpane - now he's a next door neighbour undertaking a major DIY job at 10pm on a Sunday night.

There he is, right in front of where we're standing - quite near the front of the stage in fact - chatting to his mates, leaping about all over the place to pull 'amusing' faces at girls, raising his arm in the air and doing some weird flicky thing with his fingers when he hears a song he thinks he recognises; except the flicky thing is neither in time with the music nor in keeping with the fact that he's at a Goldfrapp show. Kasabian, maybe, Oasis definitely - but not Goldfrapp.

Where do these people come from? I wonder. And at what point do they decide, yeah, you know what I'm going to pay thirty quid to see that dirty bird with the lalalala song who isn't Kylie - what's her name? Sounds a bit like one of those Starbucks coffees...

I'm aware I'm sounding like some old fella at the back who shushes people at Bert Jansch gigs but you know, if you come to a gig, get in the spirit of the thing! I'm here with someone who works at EMI and so traditionally we should be the annoying freeloaders who don't appreciate the ticket price and talk in loud voices all the way through the show. But actually we're both real fans. Much earlier in the year, I waxed in this very blog about Seventh Tree by Goldfrapp and I still stand by what I wrote - it's one of the albums of the year and no doubt will end up in many end of year Best Album lists. Mind you, it will be at position 87 much further behind more superficially exciting stuff like Glasvegas or Bon Iver - neither of whom, incidentally, I have been able to listen to more than once. But that's pop for you.

Talking of overrated things, I went to see Damon Alban's Monkey opera last week. I was reviewing it, so again, you could argue that my opinion doesn't hold as much weight as someone who paid good money for a ticket, but I have to say I really didn't like as much as I thought I was going to. Maybe it was the whole expectation thing - everyone I know who had seen it either in Manchester or at the Royal Opera House or in one case, Paris, darling! Everyone was raving. The costume, the music, the choreography... oh what a tremendous show, they all said.

My view... well, you can read the review. When I phoned in the star rating (three out of five) so they could have this for their editorial meeting, I distinctively got the impression that they were surprised I hadn't shouted "Five! No, fuck it, six out of five - it's a mindblower, my friends, start queuing now before it's too late!"

And who could blame them? Everyone else seems to have loved it and you know what, it is spectacular and the music and costumes are good, but come on, if it's supposed to have a story then let's have that made preeminent. As it was, even if you religiously read the surtitles (the show is in Mandarin, Parklife fans) you mainly got the libretto which only embellished a story you were supposed to already familiar with. On the subject of the surtitles by the way, they weren't 'sur' at all but 'side' - the stage was flanked with screens which forced any audience member keen on finding out what the hell was going on to constantly turn his head from stage to screen and back again; the cast must have thought they were watching crowd at Wimbledon. Monkey Tennis indeed.

Come to think of it, the side-titles were the wayward star of the opening night: during one particularly incomprehensible Mandarin moment, we swiveled our heads round to find out what had just been said and were greeted with a random string of letters splayed across the screen "ttttttttttyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.. aaaa" as if a small child had been given free rein with the keyboard in the backstage side-titles suite. This was quickly replaced with the blank screen familiar to anyone who has had Powerpoint presentation issues. Shortly after this, we were treated to the sight of Damon's manager panicking past us towards the side-title suite with a large dose of Short Shrift.

I went out to see some new stuff last week too. I missed cutesy Brooklyn threepiece Chairlift at the Dublin Castle who lots of people seem to be looking at because I was having an interesting conversation in the restaurant over the road (one of the bonuses of being an A&R spectator is that if I don't fancy going I don't have to - brilliant!) Next night, I was asked out by a mate to see some more new groups that the industry are currently foaming up over.

First up, we went to Bar Rumba on Shaftsbury Avenue - not the usual venue you'd expect to find the future of music - a basement underneath the cinema and shopping centre. The band were female fronted and called Pageboy. My heart sank during the first song because the singer - seemingly styled by the Partridge Family in high-cut flared jeans with braces and fringe over her eyes - had one of those voices which is keen on revealing everything in one line of a song - vowel-stretching, yeah-ing, yelping and showing plenty of Come Awns, she was intent on proving just how damn good a voice she had. In my head I was forming sentences like Duffy singing for Toploader, but once the second song began it was as if the voice felt its work was done and the human being could come out and it was actually pretty good - more like Ann Peebles or Amy Winehouse, authentic, soulful and melodic. Bizarrely, I was greeted Bob Stanley who was watching Pageboy too. Kind of like seeing John Martyn at a McFly show.

Next up we braved the doors at the Hoxton Bar and Grill and got away with not having the right trousers. We were there to see the brilliantly-named Ou Est Le Swimming Pool, an inevitably East London threepiece who turned out to be a Klaxons-with-rapping combo with a neat line in chorus and very strong voices. Handsome fellas too - although the keyboard player had something of the night about him.

Still, at Monkey, at Pageboy and indeed in a club almost entirely full of Hoxton fashionista (the type who all have three jobs - DJ, photographer, club promoter - as well as three simultaneous haircuts) I fortunately didn't encounter anyone remotely as irritating as the gurning buffoon at Goldfrapp. Of course, mid set, as the fawn and stag mask-wearing backing vocalists stood back for some wonderfully pervy folk dancing (a brilliant juxtaposition of maypole- and pole-dancing) I walked up to him and had a word. He was instantly subdued and massively apologetic, promising never to behave like such a twat again and everyone around me slapped me on the shoulder and offered to buy me a pint.

No, of course that's not what happened. What actually happened was this: I pretended he wasn't there and after a while, aside from occasionally looming up like baboon in a wildlife park, he really didn't bother me. A response, I think you'll agree, very much in keeping with the warped English repression of a Goldfrapp show.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Sitting on the sofa in your underpants

"I'm looking at my options... I mean it's a shit time to be out of work but in a funny kind of way it's great to get off the treadmill, look around, see what's out there, you know... It's liberating and exciting."

The A&R man, or currently ex-A&R man, is saying all the things you say when you've been made redundant. He's making frequent use of words like 'options' and 'opportunities' and the ever-reliable 'irons' that are very much 'in the fire'.

There's a couple of us, chatting with him and we are sympathising - we've both been through similar things. After he's gone my pal turns to me and we look at each other, "Why don't people just tell it like it is?" he asks, "Why don't they say, 'I'm sitting at home on the sofa, watching daytime TV, miserable and bored, no one will return my calls - what is wrong with me? Why am I suddenly toxic?!' Then at least we'd all be able to bond with him and say - yeah, been there mate, instead of saying: ' yeah, good for you, nice to hear about your proverbial irons.'"

Last year (almost exactly a year ago in fact) a bunch of us were made redundant from V2 and I was over the moon. I don't recall any sitting on the sofa in my pants, weeping. But I was lucky, I think. I had a little money from them, and Charlie and I were starting the management company that became Riot Act. Our future looked bright. And now? Well, you know what's it's like now, you don't need me to tell you. The world has changed.

For those of you wondering, I am no longer doing the management thing. What!? I hear you scream. What about the Scottish Band?! - or indeed the band we now know as Isosceles? Well, there are still going and they're still great. But for reasons largely to do with money and time, we have agreed to part company. It was their decision, I stress, not mine - they made me redundant. But it's really for the best, it's great to get off the treadmill, look around, see what's out there, you know... It's liberating and exciting!

Seriously though, it is actually better for both of us. I've been busy doing many other things over the last few months, some of which you heard about here, and being their manager was only a part of those things. Although, it's hard to say how managers are going to work full time in an industry where the traditional source of finance in the early days (a record company) is not there any more, doing it part time is still not the best management strategy. The band were patient with me, while I went off doing editorial stuff but it was really hard to manage them, whilst, for example, sitting at a desk making sure the Website's homepage was up to date. Not to speak of being a decent father to my daughters. Remember my blog about In The City and how I didn't go because it was Maddy's birthday? Well, we had parted company when I wrote that, and the children's party seemed the best way of explaining it to myself. I realised, I didn't ever want to have an experience of missing something important like that because of something as transitory as music. Anyway, they are working on new material and I'll certainly let you know when it's ready, because I'm sure it will be great. I wish them all the best and hope they find another manager who doesn't get torn between them and a desire to write.

You see, I am not sitting at home in my pants watching daytime TV. Lord knows, I'd like to try that for a bit. What's been happening over the last three to four months has been the realisation of how much I enjoy doing all the things that were peripheral to managing a band: writing this, doing journalism, and observing the way the music industry is developing. A friend of mine said to me last week that reading this blog was, for him, like watching The Truman Show - with the show being about someone reinventing themselves. And it's true, from writing this initially about managing a band, I have gently slipped into writing about the A&R war stories and the way the music business is changing. And from this I am being asked to review gigs, present stuff on radio... well you know.

Admittedly, I am still some way off from being a proper grown up writer - I mean, even reviewing Hamfatter back in July was hugely exciting for me - getting to the front of the guest list queue and rather than saying I'm Ben from XXXX record company, being able to say I'm Ben from XXXX newspaper. It felt like a huge step forward; I was pathetically excited. Like a child being allowed into the cockpit of a big aeroplane. So ironically, like the former A&R man I mentioned at the beginning of this was bravefacing, I am genuinely finding it exciting and liberating. As well as a tiny bit scary of course.

And what of that A&R man I mentioned at the beginning? Well, he does exist but he is an amalgam of various people I've bumped into over the last few weeks. It's tough out there - record companies are signing less and paying less when they do - they don't need as many A&R folk as they did even a couple of years ago. Arguably, all you need is a marketing person who listens to Zane Lowe, reads NME, and watches Skins. Or at least, that's what marketing people would say anyway...

So despite not managing Isosceles, my observations about the record industry will go on. And of course my Truman Show analysis of what happens to me - but only if it's interesting and relevant of course. I wouldn't want to bore you with stories about my children, would I?

Sunday, 2 November 2008

How to really upset people

'There's a column we'd like you to write... oh yes and also there's a woman who wants to get in touch with you about something you wrote, which really upset her..."

The momentary pleasure at being asked to write another column for The Guardian is tempered with wondering what it is I've written that can possibly upset someone. After all, I'm adorable, right? Maybe it's someone who's taken umbrage at something I wrote in the A&R Disasters piece - possibly someone once involved with An Emotional Fish phoning up to tell me that they were actually very successful in Italy or something.

But no, it's nothing I've written for The Guardian, it's actually something on this blog that has done it. Back in June I wrote an entry about my A&R scouting days and the concept of going to see a band specifically so I could definitively pass on them - so I could close the book on the band or singer who was phoning me daily and making my life hell. So I could say, quite plainly: "I travelled to Stoke... The Bull & Gate... Stuttgart etc and saw your show and I can honestly say that it's not for me. Good luck in the future."

I told a story about how this concept was named - for it is a experience familiar to all A&R folk - and the artist whose name was adopted to name it. The person I offended turned out to be the sister of this artist; she was seething with rage because - as I had flippantly mentioned at the end of the column - the artist in question had died of cancer some years later.

Now, this was of course a small matter between two people, no big corporations were involved, and the readership of this column is minuscule compared to national radio BUT - and you can see where I'm going here, can't you? - I wonder whether Ross and Brand felt a similar guilt and remorse to mine.

I bet you're probably bored of hearing or reading about the Brandgate thing so if you are, skip down a few paragraphs to where I'll probably be talking about the death of the record business or something. But for the record, here are my thoughts on it: Firstly, if you haven't listened to the show, it's worth doing so because it seems to me that what is being debated is not so much if innocent members of the public or indeed actors should be able to come home without finding a whole bunch of tittering schoolboy abuse on their answerphones, but more that here were two huge celebrities killing time at the license payers' and Andrew Sach's expense. You could take the view - as the Daily Mail have - that they were sitting there, making it up as they went along and getting paid a fortune. As with the Brass Eye paedophilia episode, those who are complaining have probably got their information on the show secondhand.

Radio 2, as anyone who listens to it regularly will know, is a strange beast. It's not the sort of radio station that you can turn on - like say, pretty much every other commercial station - and know exactly what you'll get. Turn it on on a weekday evening after supper and you could happily think it was Radio 1 as Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie play a whole bunch of new releases - but if you leave it on after 10, you're suddenly thrown back into a parallel universe of The Organist Entertains or Big Band Special. If you're listening late at night you can find Steve Lamacq, Trevor Nelson and Mark Lamarr but if you find yourself tuning in on a Sunday then it's Alan Titchmarsh, Michael Ball and Elaine Page. Each, very much, to his or her own.

In fact when I think about it, Radio 2 is like flicking through the vinyl in a charity shop, it's the same feeling of excitement that you never know what you might find; fairly regularly it will be a Mantovani or a Jim Reeves but just as often you find a classic old Stephen Stills album or something by Lee Perry you never knew existed.

So Radio 2's listeners are inevitably going to be just as mixed. And crucially, they are going to be familiar with the schedules and when it is they like to hear their favorite shows. OK, so some of them are embracing the iPlayer and many are subscribing to the Podcasts but inevitably because of the older demographic they are a little behind Radio 1 in terms of adopting them. So when Russell Brand's programme went out on 18 October at nine o'clock in the evening it was probably not not Aled Jones fans or Elaine Page devotees who tuned in. And as we all know, out of the 400,000 listeners, two, that's 2, people were recorded as having complained - and they were upset about the swearing not about any invasion of privacy.

Now, many listeners who tune into the Organist Entertains or other more traditional Radio 2 fayre like Aled Jones and Elaine Page will no doubt also be Daily Mail readers who perhaps may not have even been aware that Russell Brand had a weekly show on their station on Saturday nights. So once the paper had done the job it does best and whipped them up into a self righteous frenzy, of course it was time to get on their computers and make their feelings known.

So what's my point? My point is that everyone has different tastes - and if you try and homogenise what you create so that it is acceptable to all you end up producing bland, boring radio - just try listening to Heart or Capital or frankly, even XFM. I'm not condoning entertainers making comedy at the expense of innocent parties or even the sort of broadcasting where smut and innuendo are substitutes for genuine wit - have you listened to Chris Moyles' show recently?

No, what I'm saying is - if you haven't already, listen to the whole of the Brand show and then tell me if it is not two incredibly talented performers involved in a high-wire improvisation act which, whilst occasionally sinking into Derek & Clive-style mutual abuse, is a tour de force of creative juices flowing. And forgive me, Andrew Sachs, but it is really funny.

Noel Gallagher, with his typical blunt genius, stated that all you need to do to appreciate how brilliant the BBC is, is to do a bit of travelling - go anyway in the world and you'll soon realise how spoilt we are, everyone else's media is sea of commercially-driven lowest common denominator fodder. It's easy to knock the BBC and there are always things that you can pull it apart over (Noel cited the removal of Top Of The Pops from the BBC schedule as being the reason we have a knife crime epidemic, er... right) but if the Daily Mail-supported campaign to do away with the licence fee is successful then I suspect that their constant fear of Broken Britain might stand more chance of becoming reality.

Blimey, bit serious this week. And you thought I didn't feel strongly about anything didn't you?

To return to my own story of upsetting the public, I took the offending post down the moment I read the sister's email. I realised how, having discovered that he had died of cancer after I'd written the blog, I really shouldn't have posted it up - or at the very least I shouldn't have mentioned his name. I have lived and learned.

That's it for this week. There's lots of stuff going on with me and my life in music at the moment which I promise to tell you about soon but for now I have to leave my desk and drive to a farm with my kids. I might even listen to Radio 2 on the way.