Monday, 25 August 2008

Toads, Dressing Rooms and Acne.

What can I say? It's the longest gap between posts I've left it since I started this blog. The fancy dress party I wrote about last time feels like it happened in the nineties. Maybe it did. Anyway, for those of you who read this - and last time I looked there were people in St Laurant Du Var and Vincente Lopez, as well as folk in Adelaide, Bangkok and Helsinki - there was even one visitor from Islamabad last month (hopefully wearing a skinny tie and listening to The Knack) - yes, for those of you that read this, I humbly apologise. It's not like I've been on holiday either - quite the opposite in fact, I've been working. The toad is squatting.

Not that managing a band isn't work, or indeed writing articles (incidentally, here's one I wrote last week about band names) but crucially none of this brings in that much cash at the moment. Actually, let's be honest, none of is bringing in any cash right now. OK, so occasionally, I get paid for something - but it does feel like the work you get paid for when you are freelance, particularly a freelance writer, isn't the actual work but the work you put in trying to get paid. So with savings running at an all time low, I suggested to some of my mover and shaker friends that whilst I may superficially appear to be a flourishing and rather important band manager, my wife is beginning to look at me rather sternly; could they put their considerable feelers out and if they hear of any freelance work popping up, get on the phone to me immediately? I sent this out as a lighthearted, amusingly-written email and by the end of the day my inbox was full to the brim with job offers.

If only that were true. No, apart from a couple of well-meaning responses of the 'I'll give you a shout if anything does come up...' nature, it was the deafening sound of Gmail Tumbleweed, which greeted me. Oh well, I thought, at least I tried. I returned to the drawing board, wondering if in fact, I did have as many actual friends out there as I thought. Maybe everyone was on holiday, maybe their silence was meant to convey a vociferous 'I hear ya!' Whatever the reason, their silence spoke pamphlets.

Then, about a week later, I got a call from a friend - "would you like to help out the online team of XXXXXXX, while one of them is away on jury service?" I jumped at it. I haven't done any online editorial since my days at AOL Music and despite the work at first glance being of the desk-bound screen-staring variety, I must confess to really rather enjoying it. I'm not going to tell you where it is, suffice to say that there are worse music websites out there and due to the unique way it's funded, everyone seems to be there for the right reasons - IE they love music and want to make great content - rather than the situation at AOL Music where any decent editorial ideas would be swept away in a sea of boring demands from sponsors. Actually, the last I heard, since being bought by Carphone Warehouse a couple of years ago, the remaining editorial staff at AOL were given the final ignominious task of flying to Mumbai to teach the call centre staff there how to do editorial. Talk about digging your own grave.

But don't think that I've thrown in the management towel to purse the Internet dream - oh no, my friends, I am still chipping away at the coal face of rock and pop and things are very gradually beginning to hot up. The Scottish band - let's for the sake of it call them Isosceles, shall we? - are coming out of the woodwork. They've been slaving away over a hot rehearsal room stove to come up with the next single and there's a 20 date tour being prepared for the autumn. I went up to see them play at The Edge Festival (the music part of the Edinburgh Festival) last weekend and it's sinking in that they are actually beginning to command a bit of an audience. In the Caberet Voltaire, bang in the middle of the city, surrounded by clowns, jugglers and motionless, silver-painted men, the band unloaded their gear and I noticed for the first time that we had some A4 love. Getting the A4 is something I've always subconsciously known is a sign you are going somewhere - it's when the promoter prints a number of sheets with your band name on it to make the venue seem like its yours for the night - a couple with 'Isosceles - Dressing Room Upstairs' on them, and a handful with stage times and Isosceles at the top. Small and insignificant this may sound but it's a deeply satisfying thing after always being first support and not getting your name on the sheet or getting it on but woefully misspelled. Don't get me started on the various spellings of Isosceles, by the way, suffice to say it's easy to remember once you've heard their chant-along song of the same name

It was good to see the fellas again, it had been a while and there was much catching up to do. We kicked back in the dressing room - a room, it must be said, that looked like it had been designed by someone with the wrong brief. Normally dressing rooms are breeze-blocked, graffiti-heavy, damp and shabby - the furniture is the worst sort of student landlord mouse-nibbled sofa carcasses and the toilets barely a latrine above an open sewer. The only respite is the rider - a case of beer and softs or as one promoter on the forthcoming tour describes it: 'ice cool imported beer' (just the wrongness of the expression 'ice cool' sets off alarm bells). The people who designed the dressing room at the Caberet Voltaire had obviously believed they were designing a Green Room for a national TV show - instead of breeze block there is a very tasteful feature wall with flock-effect wallpaper, instead of a burned-out three piece suite from 1983 there are leather sofas and wooden chairs which look as if they're from Heels. There is also a serious Air con unit which, on a day like today, brings a tear of joy to the eye. There is tea, coffee and of course there are beers as well as softs - plus chocolate too. I get to the dressing room before the band arrive and do the most important thing a manager can do - put the choc in the fridge. Job done, I sit back and wait for my 20%.

As with most of the band's shows, I'm almost disappointed that there is not more A&R advice I can give them - they are so near to being brilliant it's criminal. One time on the last tour I commented to Jack about communicating with the audience more and by the next time I saw them he was engaging everyone. This time they play two brand new songs and one of them - Andy, You're Just Like Clockwork feels like it's potentially the next single.

After the show we retire to finish the rider (chocolate included) and after a quick vegetarian haggis (I kid you not) we're in a bar and downing pints of Tenants. It occurs to me, as I hear myself blathering on to some girl in German that I have work the next day, not work as in talking to the agent about the tour, trying to get through to the PR guy or worrying about how much money we have for diesel, no - I have to be somewhere at a certain time, to do a specific thing to a specific deadline - how odd does that feel? Suddenly there can be no impromptu meetings in the middle of the day, no quick forays to Amazon or Ebay - it's all suddenly very grown up and serious and I'm not sure I like it. I throw the thought from my mind and down another pint. We're celebrating another thing too, we've been offered what is known as a sync - that is, someone wants to use one of the band's songs in an advert (it could be a film or TV soundtrack but often it's the advertising agencies who have the bigger budgets). I'm going to write more about syncs in another blog because we've got offers for a number of our bands right now and I think there are things to said about the idea of letting your songs be used to advertise, say for example - the Danish equivalent of the AA.

In Isosceles' case, we have been approached by a Scottish agency who've made, not surprisingly, ads for Iron Bru and Tenants. They also made the one with the bottles of Bulmers cider swimming through the sea like dolphins. Everything sounded amazing - they want to use the band's first single Get Your Hands Off, which is an under-exposed classic, the director is the same guy who did the dolphins ad, the agency is hip and Scottish, the ad will run for a year and go to air around the release of our new single. What, as we managers say, could possibly go wrong? The only issue is the product - what is it that Isosceles' song is going to endorse - is it a car? some jeans? a hair product? Nope. It's Oxy. You know, the spot cream. When I had spots (about a million years ago) it was called Oxy 10, I think - now they've streamlined it for the noughties. Initially, we wobbled but then we thought - hey, what's the worst that can happen? We'll have a song that people associate with an ad. Then we thought... well, I thought - money! I could do with some of that, bet those spot people are loaded. Er, no. If anyone tells you that the future for artists is not about record sales but getting your songs placed in adverts, they are probably a music journalist and not in the business. There is not much money for a new band but there is, as we decided, that magical thing: Exposure. And that for us, is what hit the, er spot.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Are you gay?

For once I'm not going to throw you in at the deep end at the start of this. I could - it would be easy. I could describe myself walking through Clapton at four in the morning in white jeans with a handlebar moustache, whilst gurning East London revellers look on disgustedly and contemplate the best way to duff me up. But no, that would be too easy. I want to tell you the story from the beginning.

I'm not much of a fan of fancy dress. And if they were honest I think most people apart from possibly Jonathan Ross would say that - all the effort, the expense and the looking like a twat for several hours. Where in fact is the upside? So when one of my oldest friends announced he was celebrating his 10 year wedding anniversary with a FD party, my heart sank. Michael and Jo whose party it was, are music industry movers and shakers, Jo, whilst being a mother of two girls older than my own, manages to hold down a senior legal position at a major publisher and Michael, well, he's the daddy in many ways - a record company MD and a consummate arbiter of taste - someone who finds time to visit the Richard Prince exhibition at the Serpentine, do a pencil sketch of whoever he's sitting opposite as well as know the crucial difference between between signing Joe Jean & the Jing Jang Jong and The Ting Tings. He's come on a long way from the days when he would eat my cheese from the shared fridge in our poky flat.

The party was being co-hosted by another friend (a successful band manager, as it goes), who, Michael claimed to me, was the one who had suggested making it fancy dress. "Mate, it wasn't my idea!" Hmm ... I'm not so sure; Michael has always liked dressing up - even at Manchester University where we met, he would frequently emerge from his room in Owens Park dressed like a Russian military officer. Although, come to think of it, it was the 80s; most people dressed like that back then.

The theme of the party was "Music and Movie Stars." Even worse! I mean, if it had been tarts and vicars or school uniform there would have been some sort of democracy at work - we all would have had the upside of being someone else for the night but there wouldn't have been the status thing at play. Without doubt it's the status thing that is the real evil of FD parties. People are immediately split into two camps: those who can afford to splash out and get a costume that makes them look exactly like who they want to be and the rest of us, who have to improvise, and inevitably end up spending the evening getting the question: "So who are you supposed to be?"

And despite this being a genuine private party, because of the status of the hosts and their perceived power and influence in the music biz, I heard several people openly planning to schmooze - "oh it'll be a great opportunity, everyone will be there... " or "you know frankly, I could do with a night in but I think it'll be good for business if I'm seen there so I'm going" Urgh! Awful. I had no intention of treating it as an extension of the music industry calendar - South By South West, Glastonbury, Michael's Fancy Dress Party, Reading, In The City ... I just wanted to see Michael and a load of our mutual friends who would be coming. But would they be coming in fancy dress?

I asked our mate Andy if he was going in FD. "Do I look like a complete c**t?" was his reply. I shouldn't have expected anything less. Others seemed unsure. Most of them, given the current belt-tightening world we're living in, were stressed out by the idea of costume hire. Some, for whom time is more pressing than money, were annoyed at the hours that had to be spent in thinking of who to go as "How much spare time does he think we've got?" As the day loomed, I became increasingly stressed. I had no idea who to go as and all the suggestions and ideas seemed to involve wigs - I imagine this must happen a lot to bald men before FD parties - "How about going as Ozzy or Robert Plant? What about Alice Cooper?"I didn't want to spend a fragrant August evening sweating under nylon heavy metal hair. "What about going as Britney when she shaved all her hair off?" suggested my friend Alex. Cheers.

"What about putting a plastic whale around you and going as Moby?"
This was the suggestion from my hairdresser mate, David, as he gave me a trim on the Friday afternoon. In many ways it was the final straw - at this point I knew that no one was going to help me come up with an idea - I was on my own. I exited his salon and wandered over to Fopp to cheer myself up. Of course, my visits to Fopp, as I've described before, always have the dual effect of cheering me up when I find an album I want for £5 or less, but depressing the hell out of me that the record industry is dying and everything is being flogged off. This time though, I realised that just over the road from Fopp is Angels, the fancy dress hire place.

I went in, mainly to wallow in my own lack of money and ideas. The professional costume hire section had just closed for the week so I went upstairs to the fancy dress shop. This is the runt end of Angels, more of a glorified joke shop compared to the costume hire business which supplies the film and TV world. I flicked through a book of costumes which were all trying to ape famous film roles without incurring a copyright fee (samples include an Austin Powers one called 'Groovy', a yellow Ali G one called 'B-Boy' and a muzzle hat Hannibal Lector one called 'Schizo', which I'm sure Rethink would have something to say about) None of them cost less than £50. Bollocks to it, I thought, I've got a Beatles wig at home left over from an old FD party I went to when I worked at AOL, I'll be George again.

But just I was about to go back downstairs and drown my sorrows in Fopp, I saw it. Hang on, hang on... I could put that on and ...yes! It was perfect. And only £4.99. Brilliant!

It was called a 'Leather Look Biker's Hat with chain' and after I found it, things snowballed. I found a set of 'Vicar's teeth' for £1.50 in a shop in Chingford, a string vest and a studded bracelet and a black kohl pencil in Walthamstow market each costing £2 - everything costs two quid here, aside from bananas which are, of course, "a pairned a bowl!" Upstairs in my cupboard I found a pair of white Levis with a 30inch waist but miraculously I could still get into. In fact, their being so tight only added to the effect. I completed the costume, then went round to our next door neighbours to see what they thought. "Christ, Ben, you're going to pull in that," said Mandy. I think she was taking the piss. "Daddy, you look silly," said Maddy. Goal!

I wasn't going to travel on public transport in costume so I brought my kohl pencil with me. And in a pub in Borough, having lent my friend Saul the Beatles wig and helped Alex put on her Mick Hucknell outfit, I went to the Gents. Ignoring the smell of wee and the constant man traffic going past me, I balanced a copy of the sleeve of their Greatest Hits on the sink and using my kohl pencil applied my big moustache. Finally I emerged, out of the closet as it were, as Sir Freddie of Mercury!

As we crossed the plank to the boat where the party was taking place, I realised that the appeal of FD parties is that once you've got over the psychological hurdle of being someone else and accepting that you're there to be laughed at, it's brilliant. All the curmudgeonly stuff I mentioned earlier about status and expense and stress went overboard as I strutted my stuff as Freddie. At the party we bumped into the cast of Gone With The Wind, various Marilyns, an Amy Winehouse, David Bowie, someone who had painted their whole head blue like Iggle Piggle who turned out to be a member of Franz Ferdinand, and a balding man who had simply put blue make up over his eyes Stipe-style. I had had and dismissed this idea and I felt rather smug mincing past him with my 'tache and leather cap. Michael and Jo looked amazing as Anthony & Cleopatra - it was clear that Michael had harboured desires to get with a breastplate and plumage for a while, as it was a look he seemed suspiciously comfortable with. Something people were beginning to say about me too. "Ben," said my friend Emma, who was one quarter of Abba, "you look disgusting!" I took this as a compliment. Charlie from our management company was part of the Abba line-up but he'd forgotten to do the beard "I could be anybody'" he moaned, "I could be Kenny Loggins..." Saul, in the Beatles wig got bizarrely mistaken for Elton John and my press guy Steve, was wearing full Luftwaffe gear. Well, someone had to. Everyone wondered why Alex, who works for Mick Hucknell, had dressed as him. True to form, my friend Andy came as himself - a cynical press officer. "I always knew you'd bottle it and come in fancy dress." he told me at the bar. There were quite a few folk who hadn't bothered dressing up, and I realised that the main reason I had was so I wouldn't stand out. Having said that, I seem to recall being on the dancefloor most of the night, throwing shapes in character. So much for blending in.

I bumped into Alex James, who I hadn't seen since I worked for him - since then he's became a dad, a writer, a media darling and cheese whore so it was kind of fitting that our reunion of sorts had him dressed relatively normally (he claimed to have come as Sebastian Flyte from Brideshead Revisted - plus ca change) and me as gay as the 1890s. At Michael's wedding where I had been best man, Alex and I had come back to Clerkenwell where Michael lived at the time, blagged the last of his wedding champagne, gone to Turnmills and danced with our tops off until it closed. Now I was drunk, but he was sober. We chatted, while that I fumbled about for 10 minutes trying to store his number on my mobile. By the time I had managed it he'd gone back to the country.

Eventually it was time to go home. I think I may have been last to leave, such a good time I'd been having. For some reason, possibly financially motivated as I had spent all of my float behind the 'free' bar, I decided to get a nightbus back to Walthamstow. I sat inconspicuously on the bottom deck, with my leather-look cap safely hidden in my bag and a cleverly prepared blue jumper covering my string vest. It was only when I caught sight of the handlebar mustachioed queen in the window that I realised I wasn't quite blending in as planned.

The bus, of course, was going nowhere near E17 and I got turfed off outside Homerton Hospital in Hackney. I stood at the bus stop hiccuping whilst trying to the read three timetables simultaneously (I think there may have only been one). Suddenly, I heard an accented voice in my right ear: "Are you drunk?" I turned round and tried to focus on the well-dressed Pakistani man standing there. I smiled apologetically," Ishit that obvioush?" He smiled back. Then a pause. "Are you gay?" I don't remember feeling particularly alarmed at this point. Mind you, if the cast of Lord of The Rings had emerged out of Homerton's A&E doors I wouldn't have batted an eyelid. "No, sorry, mate, I'm in fanshee dress..." As quick as you like, he turned on his heel and departed round the corner. Oh well. I started walking to where I knew I could get a bus back - unfortunately I had to go through one of London's most dangerous quarter's, Clapton. I made it though, always keeping the beacon of Thistlethwaite Road as a talisman: bang in the middle of all the scary nightclubs and dangerous kebaberies and just up from Clapton Pond is the road where Harold Pinter grew up.

At the top of Lee Bridge Road, I stopped and waited. It didn't take long for the bus to come. I thought about the well dressed man outside the last bus stop. I felt a bit sorry for him, he was so polite and everything. I hope he found someone in the end. Mandy's prediction was right, though, the costume got me propositioned - and who could ask for more on a Saturday night?

Friday, 1 August 2008

I want to see the name of the African child my donation is going to ...

I'm pacing through tents, swerving round campfires and trying to keep the swearing at a reasonable volume. It's just after 1 in the afternoon, the sun is beating down on me, Maddy, is sitting on my shoulders and I'm late.
"Why are they liars, daddy?"
"Because they said the car park was near the main stage..."
"Why did they lie?"
"Er... because they wanted me to drive somewhere else..."
"Why do you think?"

Turn the questioning round - always works that one, always gets her thinking and sometimes keeps her quiet.

"Was the other man a liar?"
"Which other man?"

I'm now beginning to wish I hadn't verbalised my feelings towards the Secret Garden Party festival staff who had directed us to the 'Guest Car Park'. If I'd kept quiet I wouldn't be having to deal with all these questions. The sweat is now beginning to dribble from the sides of my sunhat and into my eyes, whilst Maddy clings on tightly to my ears and my manbag starts chafing my leg.

"The man who told us to come here!"
"You mean the man who told us the stage was fifteen minutes away?"
"Yes!" Maddy's tone of voice is indicating that she's beginning to think I'm a bit of an idiot.
"No, he wasn't lying, he was telling us the truth. That's why daddy's cross..."
"Why are you cross with him?"

I ponder the options open to me and decide against going into a portaloo to unleash a barrowful of swearing.

We're trying to get to the main stage of Secret Garden , a low-key festival set on a beautiful Cambridgeshire estate, which has been quietly growing every year. I feel like I have a bit of an IN with it because a manager who I used to work with is one the organisers. If I bump into her, she has promised Mead. Whatever that may be. I've come this year to see Olafur Arnalds, the artist I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, who I publish. I've brought the whole family, as well as Geoff from the management company, but Maddy and I have left them at the main gate, whilst we we were told to drive round to the guest car park, which apparently is "round the back of the main stage." After driving for about 15 minutes through various counties, looking out for the occasional teenager in a high-visibility tabard who would casually gesture us onwards, we finally found the car park, tucked away in a area just outside Poland. Oli is now on stage, or certainly his time slot is for now. A very familiar feeling comes over me as I pace bad-temperedly through numerous camping enclosures, past sun-reddened, relaxed people, drinking warm cider: why am I the only person in a hurry?

This festival sensation can only be familiar to people who are involved in the music business in some way. For the proper festival attendees, the overriding emotion is one of: finally I am somewhere where I no longer have to worry about real life and I can relax in my felt jester's hat with impunity. I am not speculating here, I can testify to having this feeling three years ago at Glastonbury. I was working in new media at the time and had absolutely no work connections to the event, I bought my tickets online like everyone else, took my two year old daughter and in the end, although it wasn't planned, I ended up camping. I even smoked a joint for the first time in about 400 years. As far as I can remember, I saw a bit of Chas & Dave, a smidgen of the Kaiser Chiefs and a couple of Go Team songs; the rest of the time there we just wandered around enjoying the atmosphere, and you know what? It was the best festival time I've ever had. And don't worry, I didn't so much as think about buying a jester's hat.

Every other festival I've attended has had a work atmosphere - you go to the backstage enclosure for starters, which is comparable to getting off the tube at Old Street or Camden - lots of overdressed biz folk, crowing over NME-sponsored cups of lager, a few people you like who sympathise with the terror of such gatherings and an atmosphere rife with jealously and competitiveness. One quote I remember from a mid-90s Glastonbury was from the Echobelly drummer: "We are going to blow them off stage!" He was of course talking about Oasis. Both bands were playing the second stage that year.

Actually I feel a bit of a fraud talking about festivals because I don't think I ever went to a festival before I worked for a record company. Unbelievable, I know, considering how obsessive I've always been about music but they just didn't have the attraction for me. I went to see the Clash play the Victoria Park Rock Against Racism show in 1978 when I was 12 but I couldn't see over people's heads. I think this may have tainted the outdoor stage thing for me. My brother did the whole 80s Glastonbury thing, where Elvis Costello, Echo and The Bunnymen and Van Morrison seemingly used to play every year. I just don't think I ever had the spare cash or desire to sleep in a tent surrounded by drunk people. One of the first Reading Festivals I went to was in the early 90s and I planned to sleep in my car, not having the expense account to qualify me to get a room at the Ramada Inn where all the successful A&R folk were ensconced. I got so drunk I lost my bag (even in those days I had a manbag, oh yes) which of course contained my car keys. I had to resort to finding a tent with the friends who were planning on sharing the car with me. We eventually found an unused two-man Millets number and the four of us attempted to squeeze in. I was at the top of a steep moaning curve at this point, lamenting losing my bag, lamenting the impending hangover and probably lamenting the fact that the band that I had signed, Five Thirty, had not been chosen to be on that year's bill. As we lay in the tent on the soggy Berkshire turf, I continued ranting until someone walking past, no doubt on the way back to their pitch, muttered, "Oh shut up and get your head down." I did just that. Found my bag the next day too, you'll be pleased to hear although Five Thirty never made it big.

One thing that didn't used to happen at Festivals was guest list charity donations. If you've ever been on the guest list for a festival and you arrive, thinking you're all prepared, to be asked to cough up a surprise £20 can throw everything out of whack. OK, so it's for charity, but whose charity? As Geoff said, whilst we were struggling to find a spare £60 in cash at the gates of Secret Garden, "I'd like to see the name of the poor African child this money is going too." Of course, guest list is a privilege but not everyone on the list is a senior record company executive with the requisite expensive account. And now it seems to be mandatory at all Mean Fiddler organised festivals too. We managed to stump up the cash - well almost all of it, they let us off the last £1.50 which only took about 5 minutes negotiation. How big hearted of them. But of course, once inside we had no money and the cash point was having its lunch break. Or so the very Un-Secret Gardenish security guard told me, who stood, FBI style, outside the black silk enclosure where the machines were.

But I'm carping, the festival was, as ever, great fun once we got in the spirit - for starters there is no sponsorship anywhere so you aren't constantly tempted into the Golden Grahams Tent or plied with Innocent products. No, it's all circus skills, mud baths, and girls dressed as princesses. Maddy - dressed as a princess, natch - and I made it to see Oli, only missing one song. The blazing sun and bucolic atmosphere wasn't quite right for his brand of glacial string-laden tropes but it still went down well.

We ended up learning how to do hula-hooping and and climbed up to the top of haybales to survey the land. We even braved the queue at the cash point and Robyn and I guzzled pints of beer like there was no tomorrow. Summer had finally arrived.

I'll probably be back writing more of this in a less than a week because there are many things to tell you all about, not least my first glimpse of the new SonyBMG building, my trip to see Dragon's Den 'indie' band Hamfatter and last but not least getting propositioned in Hackney whilst dressed as Freddie Mercury. But these, as they say, are other stories!

Here's me and the girls at the festival