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.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

I'll be on my mobile!

"Ben, it's someone called Brian from Dandelion Radio, he wants to interview the band and he's asking what time they're onstage?"
"Tell him I'll call him back"
"OK. Brian, he'll call you back, he's just driving right now..."
"Daddy, can you put on Jungle Book?"

Five minutes pass. Esther starts crying from behind us. Clearly the pointy bit of croissant we'd tried to placate her with hasn't done the trick.
"Daddy, I'm thirsty," says Maddy.
The mobile rings again. Robyn answers like last time.
"It's Kev from Radio 1, he wants to interview the band too."
"Daddy, I'M THIRSTY!"
Esther's crying gets more like The Great Gig in The Sky.
"Hang on, I'll pull over..."

The Scottish Band are at T In The Park and I'm doing my job; fielding calls, hooking people up, making things happen. But of course, I'm nowhere near Balado, Kinross. To be precise I'm now parked up in a lay-by somewhere outside Nantes, on my way to a campsite in Brittany. After this my small family car full of sweaty people, toys, and boulangerie products will finally be heading to Calais and home.

I'm actually writing this having been back in London for several days. We made it back in one piece, despite the A13 not living up to the Billy Bragg song. We sat on this infamous East London access road for what seemed like days, listening to the CDs I wrote about in the last blog entry, as four lanes of traffic squeezed unhappily into one. Never had Elbow's plaintive balladry seemed more appropriate.

And on returning home and finally looking at Email, catching up on calls and doing all the re-acclimatisation you do after a two week break it became apparent that some really exciting things had happened to the Sb while I was away. Admittedly I knew about some of them already - some more plays on Radio 1, including Zane Lowe, our first NME piece - but looking at the Glastonbury BBC footage and getting emails from people telling me they'd seen the video on T in The Park coverage on BBC 1 and BBC 3 made me realise how quickly things change in the music business

When I left England, our girl band from Swindon were a five piece, on my return they are a four piece. OK, it's easy to lose a band member but that change has resulted in new songs, a new look, a Myspace redesign and frankly, a massive improvement. All that in two weeks. Blimey, all I did was lie in the sun reading John Cheever stories.

I've also come back to discover Black Kids being everywhere. Their album went in at 5 this week and the reviews appear to be largely favourable despite what the temptation must be to lead the backlash. Musically, to me at least, they play a rather pedestrian yelpy boy/girl indie pop not dissimilar to a band called Semifinalists, who I looked after when I was at V2. The latter had already released 2 EPs before I inherited them and were about to put out a third and an album. Their press person told me how the NME had lavished praise on them, singling out band member Ferry as a genius. The album did OK and then we began the long process of making the follow-up. I was still A&Ring it when V2 got sold to Universal and the record finally came out a couple of months ago. I bet you probably never even noticed, right? Exactly. Thus are the breaks of rock and pop: one minute you're at the top ... Good luck, Black Kids.

Going on holiday when you work in music is hard but let's be honest, these days, going on holiday during the tenure of any job is hard - there is so much competition, back-biting and overcrowding in all business, that 'taking a vacation' is treated with similar sniffiness as taking a sick day. Come in even if you feel like you're about to die; you should always be contactable on your Blackberry or mobile; you never know when you might be needed. I can remember holidays in the music business before the days of ubiquitous electronic connectivity and there was only stress the day before you left: had you spoken to everyone? Had you delegated to people? Were all the artists clear on what they were doing? But once you were out of there, you were on holiday: it was like going to bed - goodnight, see you all in the morning!

Now, there isn't much stress on the eve of departure because if you've forgotten anything, or not informed anyone of your whereabouts, your mobile is assumed to be on all the time. You're never quite fully on holiday. It's like meeting friends: I used to be very organised when I went out: I'll meet you in Pollo on Old Compton Street at 7.30pm, next Thursday. Now everything is much more fluid: we'll meet in Soho next week, I'll text you on the day or you call me, OK, bye!

This is all fine of course, and frankly for those of us who tend toward vagueness, it's a massive step forward. But sometimes, this reliance on technology backfires. Particularly where there's no mobile phone signal. I'm not sure whether mobile phone culture was the problem for the Sb at Glastonbury, but no one quite knew where anything was when they arrived on Friday afternoon in Pilton; a smile and a shrug seemed to be the main body language on show. Where was the guest parking for example? They eventually got directed to a field where they could park the van, but quickly learnt that it was the wrong one and miles away from guest camping. Then the van sank into the mud. The rest of Friday night was spent waiting someone to come and winch them out. After making the call - they got through on the mobile - they waited five hours. Imagine it: FIVE HOURS of sitting in a muddy field hearing the distant sound of Franz Ferdinand wafting over from the main stage. The chasm of difference between life at the top and life at the bottom of the bill can never have seemed so apparent. I never asked them, but I wonder if the onboard PC came in handy while they were waiting. Let's hope they had something to do other than sit there cursing Michael Eavis. When the rescue truck finally did arrive, the driver said he'd only got the mayday call ten minutes beforehand. Hmm, let's blame it on Somerset's bad mobile connectivity shall we?

Hearing about this ordeal two weeks after the event makes me even more proud about the band's triumphant performance on the following Sunday. There's even footage of them handing out those triangles to the crowd. And two weeks later, they drove up to Kinross and did it all again, getting the whole tent singing along to their tunes at T In The Park. And they did both those interviews too - I sorted it out with Brian and Kev, employing the wonders of mobile phone technology, while Robyn fed Esther and Maddy listened to the Jungle Book in the back of the car.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Love Triangle

The London Transport guard looks at me, no doubt speculating on the level of terroristic threat I pose to the network, "So what's in the box, then?"
"A hundred triangles."

"A hundred what?"

Triangles - you know, the ones you play..."
He looks at me as if I am insane. And it's true, it can't be very often that a passenger asks to leave a large box by the turnstyles of an Underground station these days, unless they're planning for mass panic. But I do in fact have one hundred of yer very finest Chinese 5" triangles with me. I'm on route to the West End (of London not Glasgow) to deliver them to the Scottish band, who are in town the day before the Glastonbury weekend to play a warm-up show. The triangles are part of their merchandise - more observant readers will already be making a link between the triangles and the name of the band but relax, I'm not in the least bit close to spelling it out for you.

Anyway, in true managerial plate-spinning style I have a whole load of different meetings and deliveries to make and of course given that I have so much to remember, one thing has fallen through the net - I've forgotten my mobile. However, thinking that the LU official won't be quite as forgiving if I tell him this, I have told him that I've left my tube pass at home, and asked if I can leave my heavy box with him briefly, while I pop back to my nearby house and pick it up. At this point it's worth remembering my recent experience with that bus driver, who not only would not let me off his bus but wouldn't actually even talk to me. If this fella has been to the same London Transport School of Customer Service then I'm in trouble. Not only do I have to drop off an important package for a former eighties pop star, who I'm trying to impress so he wants to work with me, but I also have to sort out the industry guest list for the night as well as smooth out pretty much everything else before driving to France tomorrow.

I'm actually writing this from France, by the way, something which may seem an entirely irrelevant piece of information but which still makes me throw my hands in the air with amazement - I can walk for the half hour it takes to get from the remote house
where we're staying to the tiny village of Prayssac, find a little cafe opposite the town square and suddenly I'm back managing the band, talking to friends and writing the blog. Please forgive me if I sound like someone who's just discovered the mobile phone but this is the first time I've actually used an Internet café and I still full of the excitement of a new convert. Although it must be said that le French keyboard is exceptionally annoyment for the touch typist; I mean, if I was to type this sentence without taking into account that some Frenchman has rearranged half the letters it would look like this: if I aqs to type this sentence zithouth tqkingh into qcctount thqt so,e Frech,eqn hqs reqrrqnged qll the letters it zoulg look like this. Qnnoying eh§,

Anyway where was I? Yes, all that stuff to do before I came here. Plus I had to decide on what music to take in the car. Actually, that's the bit of going on holiday I always enjoy the most. Of course, I always take the iPod which has all the newest stuff I'm listening to on it but the car is still in the dark ages, having a CD player without the seemingly now ubiquitous iPod socket, I notice in all my A&R friends cars. Actually, this is quite ironic really, I can remember the days not so long ago when record company people used to covert DAT players in their cars in order to listen to mixes in perfect studio quality. Now all anyone wants is the convenience of the Pod, and to hell with perfect sound - everything is so compressed these anyway you may as well listen in the same way as everyone else.

But actually I quite enjoy the old school aspect of having a CD player in the car as it means I can select the holiday listening; I have to decide in advance which is half the fun. For those of you who are interested in this (and having just listened to another Word podcast where this sort of thing is discussed every week, I know there are lots of you out there) here's some of what I brought with me:

-- The latest Bruce Springsteen
There are actually some open, winding roads in The Lot region, which will finally do this widescreen album more justice than playing it in Walthamstow.

-- Five Leaves Left
Very obvious but I always pack a Nick Drake with me along with the suncream and hayfever pills.

-- Otis Blue
Not, I stress, the recently reissued, unnecessarily double CD of this album, just the original in all its unadorned glory.

-- The new Mystery Jets album
Really enjoying this at the moment. Are they the heirs to the Cure's accessible altpop crown? Sounded great driving back from Saint Cirque La Popie yesterday. And a hidden Aztec Camera cover as a final treat!

-- The new Coldplay album
Say what you want about him, Chris Martin has the songwriting chops; just when you think he's lost the tune and gone onto autopilot, he twists the song in such a clever and deft way that you have to try really hard to resist.

-- Kraftwerk's Man Machine
Along with all the other penetrating and salient stuff he says, LCD's James Murphy pointed out that kids love Kraftwerk and he is not wrong. This one from pop's finest year (1978 of course!) has The Model on it as well as We Are The Robots, which sounds great when sung by Maddy from the back of the car and makes a refreshing change from Valerie by The Monkees which we had to listen to five times in a row on the way to Dover.

-- Best of the Monkees
Which I now never want to hear again (see above)

-- Consolers of The Lonely by The Raconteurs
Time will tell whether releasing this album without submitting it to the press was a good idea, you don't get the feeling that many people have realised just how fantastic a record it is. It's the thinking man's White Stripes - with bass guitar (at last!), added Benson melody, and a whole Zeppelinesque stature to Jack White. It's pretty good at 120 kmh round bends too.

-- In A Silent Way by Miles Davies
It's the one with only two tracks on it, the first of which, Shhh Peaceful, is a beautiful end of afternoon driving home groove. Robyn finds it a bit annoying and Maddy is still shouting for Valerie but quite frankly, I'm the daddy, OK? Actually, Maddy hasn't got a leg to stand on as far as in-car music taste is concerned: the last time we were here two years ago, when she was two and a half, she insisted on hearing Monster by The Automatic the whole time. "And look where they are now!" I say triumphantly, "people are still listening to Miles Davies though!" She doesn't understand though, and in the end I relent and let her have The Monkees again.

-- The Seldom Seen Kid by Elbow
I still can't get over how bad the band name is compared to how good the group are. One Day Like This is on all my compilations at the moment - I put it on the one for the famous eighties pop star who I am trying to impress - I hope he gets over the name Elbow and realises the transcendental nature of this song. It manages to do all the things they promise great music does like make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and the blood flood into your brain. I think I also put it on a CD for the Scottish band for their trip to Glastonbury in their new van. But it turns out that the van doesn't have a CD player, surprising since one of the things that recommended it to me (of course I, as manager, was the one required to part with the cash for it) was that it had a PC on board. A PC but no CD! I assume that this meant a personal computer as opposed to a police constable although given that the van is an ex-police vehicle perhaps the law requires that it does have one last remaining officer on board. Anyway, Elbow: a good album, although the opening track is a bastard for getting the volume right on - starts really quietly then explodes, then gets quiet again. Bit like Maddy after 8 hours in the car. I tell you, washing sick off the car seat whilst on the hard shoulder was not a high point.

-- Quite a lot of other stuff that I can't remember...
Give me a break, I'm sitting in a Café D'Internet! I can't be expected to remember everything - there's a bloody family in the booth next to me conducting a joint exploration of the Web in extremely audible French. I've had to retaliate by sticking on Olafur Arnalds to drown them out. Actually I wish I had brought
Olafur's stuff with me for the car. He's a twenty-something Icelandic pianist with a hardcore rock background who now tours the world with a four piece female string section, playing beautiful, melancholy, orchestrated instrumentals, comparable with Eno's 70's stuff, Michael Nyman and of course Sigor Ros. I saw him headlining the Barbican last week and it was quite wonderful. And the audience was the sort of crowd you kind of want to see at all gigs - from really young to really quite old. All of them presumably having discovered Oli via the BBC's eclectic Late Junction. Here I have to come clean and confess that I actually publish Oli's first two releases - it's the first time I've been a music publisher and frankly if I can find a more talented, more amenable person to be the publisher of then I'll be surprised. Let's hope he's reading this, eh?

If the Scottish band are reading this they'll know of course that I did make it to the soundcheck of the London Glastonbury warm-up show in time. The London Underground guard grasped the concept that what was in the box was not going to endanger anyone's life unless they had a deepset trianglephobia (there must be a word for this, I'll look it up when I don't have the clock against me.)

"What triangles, like the ones you play at school?"he said, his face softening a bit.
"Yes; exactly like the ones you play at school," I quickly agreed.
"Oh go on then, I'll look after your box"
So I rush home, grab my phone and return to my guard, who hands me back the box. He's obviously been burning to ask me the question ever since I left.
"What are you doing with all them triangles, anyway, you a teacher?"
"No, I manage a band - we're selling them to the fans."
"Oh right, what are they called your band?"
I tell him.
"Oh right. Funny name for a band."
"Well, we like it. Thanks for looking after the box."
I ran off, got my train, drop off the compilation and package for the famous eighties pop star, sort out the guest list that the venue, after several years of emails and phone calls, have finally confirmed with me, buy some guitar strings and plectrums for the band in Denmark St, have dinner at a posh London club with a handful of A&R men who still have jobs and then escort some of those to the gig.
And the triangles? Yes, I deliver them safely to the guys. I later hear how they got used at Glastonbury a couple of days later, but that's another story ...