Tuesday, 22 April 2008

A Proper Outing - Part 2: The Hippest Party in Europe

Sorry about the cliffhanger. I wanted to spare you all from staring at your computer screens for too long but so many people have been cross with me for dragging it out that I'm putting Part 2 up now...

WE have a problem and the problem is that we're not going to get in - the SWG3 is at capacity! Support band Punch & The Apostles are only just on but the place has been turning people away for the previous 20 minutes. Andrew, the sharp-witted bass player, is having a cigarette outside, "You'se'll not get in now," he says in his best Dad's Army Fraser voice. But I can tell he's not serious because of the grin on his face. One of the guys on the door recognises us and we're in.

Inside, it's absolutely heaving. The capacity is 300 and I'm sure for Health, Safety and Fire Regulations sake they haven't gone over but ... well, you know, it's bloody packed. The clientele is a mix of cool 20- and 30-somethings, plus a nice smattering of older hipsters. Behind the bar cocktails are being poured, onstage Punch & co. are blasting out a Lanarkshire version of Gogol Bordello and everyone seems to know each other. I get the impression that the whole audience is somehow involved in the local arts scene, I'm not sure why other than there doesn't seem to be the level of insecure posing that happens when a club is full of wannabes; everyone seems to already be someone. If we were in London, say at the ICA or the Scala - or in one of the studios in Hoxton, the sense of competitiveness and jealousy would be palpable; the girls would be checking each other out more, the men would be more obsessed with their clothing; superficiality would have been in the air. Of course, I'm making huge generalisations from the perspective of someone who is very excited that MY BAND'S PARTY IS THE HIPPEST PARTY IN EUROPE but hey, these are my thoughts at the time.

Soon it's eleven o'clock and the band are still not on stage. Just as I am going to round them up they appear from the doorway, clutching instruments. Christ, there are no lights on stage, William isn't wearing his bright top, Jack is wearing a grey T-shirt that some fan has forced him to, no on will see them ... It'll be fine, it'll be fine. I give them beers and retreat to the back of the room.

No lights go down and no intro is made. Suddenly from nowhere they kick off with Volcano - a cover of local blues band's tune which they've turned into a off-kilter, keyboard-squeaking monster. Except you can't hear it. The vocals are non-existent, the bass is barely audible above the continued conversation of the crowd and the keyboards sound like an 80s computer game. Shit! I see Geoff weaving through the crowd towards me. He's a self-confessed sound fascist, deriving pleasure in taking live engineers to task and I can tell he wants blood. At this point the vocal pokes through but it's still cripplingly quiet - like a builder's radio in the corner of the room. I've already turned to George behind me, "You can't hear anything, mate! - can you get the sound up?" George is calm as ever but his fingers are all over the desk like a card sharp.

Amazingly, by the time Geoff reaches me the sound is alive and well. The crowd are now rapt and the band have hit their stride. Within two songs the whole room is captured. I turn to Charlie and we smile. The room is loving them, they manage to convince without lights or even much chat between songs. At one point there's a crowd surge and audience members collapse in a heap on top of a Jim Lambie table. A casualty is carried out through the back exit by two members of staff - disastrously it's not one of the drunk audience but a £10K table. Hope they're insured.

The rest of the evening is a blur, of course. They play the single, the gig finishes. The DJ starts playing old Motown records which must be against some sort of DJ bylaw but somehow works in this context. Someone tells me that since the venue reached capacity they've turned away over 150 people, including Stuart Murdoch from Belle And Sebastian. That'll teach him to be fashionably late. Wonder if another Scottish rock celebrity who had promised to DJ suffered the same fate ...

A large proportion of the audience head back to Jack's flat where the partying continues. There, I chat to the ex-keyboard player who now appears to be working in the House of Commons, the video director who is an old friend, and Jack's lovely girlfriend... By the time I leave, I know I'm too drunk to walk back to the hotel because I'm deciding to walk back to the hotel. On my journey to Room 504, I discover a street booth selling bacon rolls at 4 in the morning. I buy one and, pulling my manager's coat tighter against the cold, continue walking whilst I eat. It's the most delicious thing I've ever tasted.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

A Proper Outing - Part 1: Managers in Coats

There's always a couple of people drinking beer at ten in the morning when you fly with Easy Jet or Ryanair. I don't know why this is, I can only assume that there are a couple of people on every flight who like a drop of Special Brew before sitting in a enclosed space with 200 others, but on grown-up airlines they are normally in the Executive Lounge so we don't see them. So anyway, we're standing about half way down a long queue at Gate 51 at Stansted Airport, watching the screen flashing Last Call. The urgency of the message doesn't seem to have connected with the blue-jacketed staff who are either standing around looking confused or sharing a private joke with one another.

It's a 'proper outing' as Geoff calls it in his sage Essex brogue; the three of us are all dressed in our manager coats (mine, a rather splendid corduroy Crombie, which makes me feel quite thrusting) and waiting to fly to Glasgow for the launch party of my band's single. The actual single - 80 copies of the 7" - is in my hand luggage as it's only just arrived via our Leeds-based indie label from the factory in Czechoslovakia. Such is the high-powered, multinational music business we now work in. And we're flying to Glasgow - we're quite literally jet-set. Posters are up all over Glasgow (as well as some in Edinburgh and Dundee), flyers are in the coolest coffee bars and pubs, and the band announced the gig on Vic Galloway's Radio One show two nights before. But the venue is a bit off the beaten track - I still couldn't describe to you where it is. So will anybody actually come?

The flight should have left five minutes ago so our frenzied rush from the departure lounge was entirely pointless. Why is it that every time I fly, I'm either kicking my heels and collecting dust or I'm Lateboy pleading with gate staff to let me on the plane? It's death either way - from boredom or heart attack - like the Eddie Izzard pears joke "Don't ripen yet, don't ripen yet. Wait til he goes out the room! Ripen! Now now now!"

We're important managers, fielding calls - Charlie is setting up a top level meeting to discuss the girl band, Geoff is talking to his Scandinavian counterpart about his band's forthcoming album, and I'm... well, I'm being told off by my wife for not sorting out use of a friend's cottage so we can have a holiday with my mother. Actually, I had sorted out some dates but it turns out that mum can't make those because she's busy. Her diary's full. She's in her mid-seventies for God's sake! She should be sitting at home knitting and watching BBC costume drama - not booking herself weekends away with her friends or nights in London's West End. Most of the time she's actually on the South Bank, queueing up to get last minute bargain tickets for the National. I mean, I keep up with culture, I go out, see exhibitions, read the papers, listen to Radio 4. But a lot of the time my mum is there first. This is a conversation that happened last December:

Mum: Ben, darling, you like Bob Dylan, have you seen I'm Not There?
Me: No, mum, I really want to, it's not out until next week - meant to be great.
Mum: Mmm, I'm not sure I'd agree with that...
Me: Why? Have you seen it?
Mum: Yes, Maureen and I saw it last week at LFF - we got seniors concessions...
Me: (Trying not to get annoyed that mum has trumped me - again): Oh right - I didn't know you liked Dylan
Mum (in a breezy, throwaway tone) No, I don't really ... Well, I don't know much about him - and after seeing the film I don't think I want to...

So I sort out some new dates that fit into my mum's busy arts schedule. And still the Ryanair queue is stationary. The drinkers - bizarrely at the front of the queue, and therefore letting down their rep - are onto their second cans. Then my mobile goes off - it's my radio promotions guy. A plugger rarely calls unless he has good news and this time is no exception - we've got a Zane play! Hooray! Zane Lowe, Radio 1's exhuberant, Antipodean indie figurehead is going to play the Scottish band's single next week. And it's not in the Fresh Meat slot. This is where he pitches three unsigned bands against one another and let's the audience decide by text. Inevitably, it's always the band with the geekiest online fanbase who win. And the other two bands will suffer the ignominy of having had their chance and blown it. I suspect if we were on we wouldn't win. I need to work on our online presence.

So Radio 1 - check us out! I immediately feel like a manager again. Then the queue disperses and people start bolting for another gate. There has of course been no announcement, Ryanair clearly favouring the Chinese whisper approach to information dissemination. We all bomb over to the other Gate, hot on the heels of the Special Brew drinkers who seem to be ahead of everyone again - maybe they work for Ryanair.

On the plane we discuss the night ahead. The band's rehearsal space is in fantastic converted Warehouse called SWG3, which houses a few other bands and a lot of contemporary artists. Walking through it to the rehearsal space is like walking through the back of a film lot and Tate Modern - concrete floor and painted brick walls stuffed with sculpture, fine art, and equipment. One artist has even installed a shed, which she works in.

We've tied the launch party into the Gi Festival of Contemporary Visual Art, which was easy as SWG3 are hosting lots of Gi events and will thus have a dressed and prepared exhibition space for us to perform in. Sorry, I feel I'm putting in too many links, but I was bowled over by the performance space when I saw it. On the ground floor of the warehouse and decked with black sound-absorbing sheets, DJ booth and even a cocktail bar, the space was the perfect combination of authentic warehouse space with stylish trimmings . But it was at that point almost entirely empty. Now I felt myself getting the 'what if no one comes?' anxiety. I mean, I had had to get a cab here - and it wasn't the first time I'd been. I still couldn't tell you where it is in relation to the rest of Glasgow - mind you, as I've said before, they do change the streets around here fairly frequently.

As we finished stuffing some goodie bags - to be made available to the first lucky 20 fans who bought the single - the place begins to get its first punters: a girl with a camera, the guy from the band's Leeds record label, some more girls, an older couple. I put up a poster behind the bar advertising the single's availability for £4. The studio is run by a guy whose real name is Mutley - a powerhouse of energy and charm who offers to print a poster in his office upstairs which messages the single instead of using the one I've done. This is both generous and extremely astute - my handwriting is indeed illegible and might hinder sales but also crucially, even one hand-scrawled poster on the space's immaculate black and white walls will spoil its look. Mutley is clearly a big and small picture manager. Even the glass-topped bar tables, where people are currently placing their Becks and Moscow Mules, turn out to be designed by Turner Prize-nominated Jim Lambie. They're worth £10K each apparently, so I hope no one gets too pissed ...

Behind the bar is a man spinning a vodka bottle on his head. He then throws it up in the air, catches it on his left shoulder, rolls it down his left arm, flicks it back up into the air with his wrist and catches it in the bottom half a cocktail shaker he's holding in the other hand. There is a ripple of applause as four or five mobile phones are whipped out to film his next drink.
"The barman's amazing," I comment to William from the band
"Yeah, he's the UK's Bartender of the Year." he says, "He has a practice space in the Warehouse."
I've since Googled this I can't find the chap from SWG3 - he was certainly much cooler - and also younger - than the fella in the above Youtube clip but hey, watching live Flair Bartending from a couple of feet away is highly recommended. Almost as much fun as drinking.

By the time I go off with Charlie, Geoff and our investor for a bite to eat, the place is filling up a bit. It's not worryingly empty, anyway. But it is now nine o'clock - surely if people were coming they would be here by now. I'm also concerned that the sound isn't going to be great. I've been told that a previous show the band played here was marred by poor sound. Not the sound engineer's fault (George, who does sound here, is the band's own sound guy) but just bad acoustics. We leave the building and get a cab to a recommended pizza place. That turns out to be full so we go the Indian restaurant next door and have the worst curry in Europe. The signature ingredient here turns out to be Ghee - mmmm, just can't get enough of that clarified butter. Bloated and disappointed we sit like four unwanted balloons in the cab back to the warehouse, making lame, Ghee-based puns. Alan McGhee, Ghee De Maupassant...

At the Warehouse we're in for a nasty surprise.

I'll let you know what happens in Part 2 soon...

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

"Did you ever feel a strange vibration in here?"

Roll up, roll up! Stickers, badges, posters, T-shirts! I have entered the world of merchandise. OK, so it's not like there are queues around the block yet, but there's something life-affirming about making objects and sticking the name of your group on them, isn't there? Of course, it just means you're spending money you don't have but rather like wearing a suit to a job interview you somehow feel a bit naked turning up at shows without some merch. After briefly entertaining the idea of doing hip skinny shirts for girls and stylish polo shirts for boys, I was enlightened by Geoff, my business partner. A man seasoned with much more managerial experience than me, Geoff let me have it straight: "Ben, don't bother, it's only fat lads who buy band T-shirts - I've got an attic full of Mediums and Smalls."

So we're doing badges now instead - and maybe stickers too. I've always been a big fan of the band sticker. I remember buying a handful of Buzzcocks stickers at the first gig I went to when I was 12. Onto the school rough book they went, everyone in class was intrigued what this slightly sexy sounding thing was with its colliding ZZs. Bless Malcolm Garrett, for a brief moment I was the coolest person I knew. I've always striven to recreate this excitement with artists I've worked with. We did some amazing stickers for 60Ft Dolls, which featured the band's name using the Happy Shopper logo and font - a very clever trick considering the band had a song of that name. The marketing guy who did those for us is still around so I phoned him to ask his advice on stickers. Why was a quote I'd been given for stickers so much? - "Ah, that'll be the blades they have to make up - go for anything other than square, oblong or oval and it's really expensive." "Cat shape?" "There's your answer."

Still, it's exhilarating to see designs you've helped put together appear on walls or lapels. I look forward to seeing Glasgow's most fashionable swanning around the band's single launch this Friday sporting little cats on their thrift shop V necks. I've not got anything against making 'indie tent' T-shirts but given the sales upside of T-shirts in a band's early days (in my experience so far, about one per gig) I'd prefer to have something small, affordable and cute on sale rather than a large piece of fabric gaffa-taped hopefully to a felt board.

Talking of menswear and felt boards, I had a bizarre experience last week. The meetings I described in the last blog continued and on Thursday I found myself going over to see someone at PIAS distribution. I've known the lovely people there for many years, in the past they've distributed a lot of the records I've been most proud of: Indolent releases like Sleeper, the aforementioned Dolls, Wannadies, and Stephen Duffy as well as my own label Scared Hitless including the first Verruca Salt single. PIAS have recently moved to new offices, situated in a building which until recently were occupied by the kindly gentle folk of V2.

So here I am getting off the tube at Fulham Broadway and walking past the nasty TGI Fridays and the misshapen BMG Music tower towards Farm Lane, just as I did for most of 2007. The old V2 building was in many ways like the older V2 Building in Holland Park - a throwback to the glory days of record companies: a compact, warren-filled, converted older building, filled with enthusiastic young women, cynical youngish men and cardboard boxes filled with 'stock'. If you wander down Kensington High St towards Putney and take a look at Warners, EMI, Universal or SonyBMG you will see that each building is large and new and if there are boxes, then they are hidden away so that guests like me won't syphon off any Duffy stock to take to Record And Tape Exchange. If any further proof were needed that the industry's glory days are over, then look no further than the Universal building, which, like a massive, living iPod, has compressed virtually all of that is left of the UK record business into its shell.

Inside the old V2 building I am greeted by the jolly PIAS receptionist. The hand-carved-by-slaves V2-logo reception is still there, as is the inexplicable enormous Cuban artwork over the bar area, but the atmosphere, with emphasis on the third syllable, is gone; the building seems to have gained a joie de vivre that was missing by the time we limped out last year. It feels weird to be back, especially as I'm the one waiting in reception; I almost expect to see my old self sneaking out of the side door in its false beard trying to avoid a meeting with me. My host, Ian, comes down to greet me and we make small-to-medium talk as we skip up the gantry steps to what was the old marketing department. Blimey, they've kept the old rollerblinds covered in rock icons (Hendrix, Jagger, Strummer, etc - I always wondered idly in meetings how they would have looked if they'd stuck to a strictly V2 palette - Isabelle Campbell, Mark Lanegan, Alan from the Rakes, Lethal Bizzle - surely that would have been cooler, wouldn't it?).

As we walk past the old chairman's suite (now split into two more conservatively proportioned offices) I want to ask where we're going. Surely not! Is this a joke? He's not taking me back to the old V2 A&R department is he?

"And here's my office..." says Ian, ushering me into a room I am all too familiar with. "Nooooooo!" I feel like Charlton Heston's character at the end of Planet of The Apes. Yes, Ian has inherited my old office - what are the chances? etc. We spend the first five minutes, just laughing and comparing notes on the room. He has a framed Peter Tosh poster waiting to be hung, probably in the space where I my Clash poster was - plus ca change. On the felt pin board, is no oversized band T-shirt but a small Fred Perry sticker I had stuck up on the day I bought my current favourite shirt. I comment on it and we realise we are both wearing Fred Perrys.
"Hey let me ask you one thing, though, Ben - did you ever feel a strange vibration in here?"
"Me too - it's weird isn't it? Where's it coming from?"
"No one could get to the bottom of it at V2 - Facilities just said it was the AC"
"But it's there even when the AC's not on"
"And sometimes not at all - then it comes back..."
"Your whole keyboard vibrates when you're typing."
"What can I say, I've been there..."

And so on. We did actually have a proper meeting after all the room-bonding, it transpired that there was not much for my bolt-on A&R company but possibly potential things for the Scottish band at a later date. A partial result then, if you're a glass-half-full man. Which, of course I'm not. But you know what was strangest about the meeting in my ex-office? - It felt amazing to be back but on the other side of the desk! Absolute tantamount proof of what I was saying in the last blog - to be able to walk out of that building, after a smile, a handshake and a 'see you soon'. Away from the strange inexplicable vibration, back into the world of badges, stickers and booking hotels. Single launch party tomorrow in Glasgow, I'll keep you posted how we do...

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.