Monday, 30 March 2009

My face is finished, my body's gone...

INT: Small kitchen. Tasteful but not extravagant. Morning.

William Shatner, Lee Majors and David Soul are sitting round a table having breakfast. Shatner's eating Marmite on toast, Majors is sulkily staring into his coffee and Soul is looking at the small ads in Variety.

Soul: Hey guys, here's one: Producer seeks experienced talent. No timewasters. Sounds perfect for us!
Majors (scowling): Yeah right! We all know what that means...
Soul (hands in air): Tell us...
Majors: He's looking for chicks!
Shatner: It could be guys... and if it's experience this producer wants, then hey ...
Majors: Yeah, whatever. Even if he is looking for dudes, we're 'overqualified'.

That's an excerpt from the forthcoming series Six Million Dollar Men. No, of course it isn't, I made it up, but hey, if someone could get those fellas together to do comedy I'd watch it. Majors would have to agree to try and shag anything to reflect his model-marrying in real life. Incidentally, I didn't know Majors markets his own hearing aid, called inevitably The Lee Majors Bionic Hearing Aid - tagline: it won't cost you $6 million but you'll think it's worth it. Something us tinnitus sufferers could use, I'm sure.

Anyway, the reason I mention Steve Austin, Hutch and Kirk is because I've been musing on the concept of over qualification. Last year, whilst I was managing the band, I would occasionally put myself up for job interviews and a couple of times when I never heard back from a submitted CV I would enquire why and be told: you are overqualified. Ouch.

I went to the musical of Priscilla Queen of the Dessert last week (I thoroughly recommend it, by the way - and I hate camp, as you know.). Anyway, in the pivotal role was Jason Donovan. His body is still lean and taut, as he's keen to stress by stripping down to pants in the first five minutes. But he's aged in the face like anyone in their forties has a habit of doing. And so what? He's not the greatest actor, neither is he much competition in the singing department for his co-stars but he does a good job; he's convincing and you're rooting for him. Although not in the Australian sense of the word, I stress. The point is, in the age area he is 'overqualified'. If he was still flogging the cute blonde boy next door it would not work. He would not work. But he's bent his image to fit the market and he's flourishing. Blimey, never thought I'd hear myself defending the Donovan.

And isn't that what everyone is doing? Particularly in the current economic climate. You can tell the people that aren't doing it - the people who have one thing they do and stick to that - people like Oasis, for example, but I suppose you could argue that they don't need to thank you very much - but what happens when Liam does start to lose his insufferable good looks? Well, perhaps he'll retire and do something else. Or carry on Jagger-style with all his self-pronounced 'laughter lines' ("Nothing's that funny" said George Melly)

Or what about Kylie? There is nothing else that people want Kylie to be other than a diminutive, multisexual cypher, once she begins to look her age (which, I admit, may never happen) whither the wispy songs with vaguely suggestive lyrics? Nick Cave - now there's a man who has made a career by sticking to his schtick. In fact, even dueting with Kylie he never went off-message.

That thing I wrote for the Guardian last week about rock stars going off-message has got me thinking. It seems to me that maybe that's what many stars are going to have to do in order to survive. In a world where anything digitizable can be free, you can no longer rely on residual back catalogue sales from CDs or DVDs to keep you going. So you are going to have to carry on working like the rest of us and to do that you're going to have to keep relevant to the market. Sure, if you're Leonard Cohen or Van Morrison you can charge your affluent audiences £200 a ticket for the privilege of seeing you, but you can only do that if you have their stature and crucially, you can't continue to do that every year. So what you surely must do is start thinking laterally and do other stuff. If you're Cohen you can sell your art which sticks to the message and keeps your image safe. But what if you're Michael Jackson, you're 50 years old and you've just sold out 50 O2s? Now there's someone who's overqualified. Surely it's time to leave the Moonwalk behind and just perform some fantastic tracks - use the great voice and occasionally do that thing with the foot, sure. But don't try to pretend you're 25 and book an elephant and 100 Masai warriors...

So many friends of mine are doing their bit for reinvention and going off-message - like my pal I described last week who picked up the Twitter baton (the Twaton?) and ran with it. Or another friend who is lecturing to music students after having been MD of a large music publisher. Re-invention may be deemed undignified by some, but often it's far less dignified to try to remain the same in the face of change - you can end up looking a bit of a Cnut.

Monday, 23 March 2009

"Mother doesn't go out anymore ..."

I feel my eyes gently closing. It's fine, it's fine... nobody can see me, it's dark after all. Maybe that's why theatres turn the house lights off during the performance... how many plays have I seen. in my life? Over 500? No, probably about 250... How does that compare with albums I've heard... My thoughts start running together into a scrambled mush and I momentarily lose consciousness. Suddenly I jolt back upright... Shit! It's OK, it's OK, nobody saw. Oh look there's Tony Parsons and Miranda Sawyer sitting in front of us. Wonder what they think of it... Concentrate, concentrate, you're reviewing it too, remember.

Christ this is boring. I mean, really - imagine having paid proper West End prices for this. It's awful. How much longer? This has to be the longest hour and 40 minutes I've endured since, well certainly since that terrible thing on Monday at the Soho Theatre. No, actually this is much worse, because the cast is so good - what the hell were they thinking?!

It's tragic isn't it, that people put so much effort and money into artistic endeavours which fail to produce any joy in the audience. I remember at my first A&R job watching my boss who has spent a year putting together Ian McCulloch's debut solo record ranting at its press reception: "Who the fuck do they think they are? What the fuck would they know about making records? You spend a year making a record only for some c**t to spend 20 minutes pulling it apart..."

The balance is wrong isn't it? All that time producing something should at least be rewarded with some respect by those whose job it is to pass judgement. Yet every music critic has stories of events they have reviewed without necessarily being present. It's easily done, though: at around the same time my boss was ranting about the minimum effort the journalists were making on his McCulluch album, I pretended to attend a ULU show by the Flatmates. I couldn't go for some reason and frankly, I didn't think they were any good anyway. At the time they were at being checked out by the majors in the wake of bands like The Wedding Present doing well. I knew I would be asked what they were like during the weekly A&R meeting, so I spoke to another A&R mate about the show. A good move. It turned out that the band had had a fight and split up on stage.

But reading reviews - particularly the snide singles reviews that are trying to emulate the wittier writers - can be a wholeheartedly tawdry affair: poorly paid, disinterested hacks, trying to quickly wade through a pile of stuff that no one will be buying anyway. Indeed, I am reliably informed that some critics don't even bother phoning the PRs for good quality copies of the tracks to review - they do it all off the videos on Youtube.

But I can always forgive negativity about a band or show or restaurant or book as long as there is some wit - humorous or otherwise. Certainly from having been on the other side of the critics for so long, I never minded if say...oooh let's pick a band out of the blue shall we... Sleeper, got unfavourable reviews as long as they were humorous. Actually I tell a lie, I did use to get quite annoyed at times. Once I wrote to Laura Lee Davies at Time Out when she accused Louise Wener of being sexist when she told feminists to "Shut up and shave". Lee Davies was unfamiliar with the quotation from Alan Partridge. My letter got published in Time Out the following week with the inevitable paragraph by Lee Davies underneath, which somehow manged to put her in the right and illustrate how very wrong I was. Whoever was right though, Louise was funniest - so she wins in my book.

Humour does seem to be the underlying currency in Guardian Guide. And I'm not just saying this because I've had a couple of thing in there recently (one on My Bloody Valentine and one on a well known brand of flu drug). Having said that, I wrote something on the Guardian blog last week and boy, does humour sometimes get lost there. The piece I wrote was pegged on the story about Bob Dylan' stinky portaloo and was about when pop stars seemingly go off-message. I got absolutely Tourretted by a Dylanologist: How dare I? Didn't I know that Dylan never had a message? Had I not seen the films? Read the books? And who the hell did I think I was?

Ah well. You can't please all the people ... And I did in fact have my fair share of people-pleasing over the weekend. It was Robyn's 45th birthday and I organised a surprise birthday party for her - something I have never done before. It was a brief glimpse of what life must have been like for Bob Geldof and I'm still a bit shell shocked. Also I'm amazed that it managed to remain a surprise after the catalogue of gaffs in the run up e.g. someone texting their husband about it but texting Robyn by mistake - a text I had to intercept and delete at 7am while Robyn was in the shower, or another friend who said to her: "see you on Saturday, then!" "Oh, are we seeing you then?" she asked "Ooh er, no... no, actually I'm thinking of someone else - silly me!"

Anyway it worked. As did the idea of everyone bringing a 7" single instead of a birthday card. Again this was astonishing, considering the amount of confusion the sentence, "bring a 45 rpm single" caused. "Can we bring CDs?" was one request. "Can't I give her a record token so she can buy what she wants?" another. I don't know, is the link between between the age 45 and 45 rpm that hard? It's probably me, living in the bubble of pop music these things are second nature to me. Everyone else has grown up and got proper lives.

I expected a slew of Paul Young's Wherever I Lay My Hats but instead Robyn was given some classics, all of them personalised by hand-written dedications on the sleeves and all of which we played on the turntable I set up on the stage. Here are the 10 most popular 45s played- some of them even had kids dancing:

1 Low Rider by War
2 I Want You Back by Jackson 5 (bit scratched this one)
3 King of The Road by Roger Miller (very kid-friendly apart from the line about cigarettes)
4 Young Hearts Run Free by Candi Statton
5 What Difference Does It Make by the Smiths (not in the Terrence Stamp sleeve sadly, but good effort for bringing this one)
6 Nowhere to Run by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
7 Leader of the Park by the Shangri-Las
8 Georgy Girl by The Seekers
9 White Horses by Jackie
10 Cars by Gary Numan

I'm glad the party went so well because it was on Robyn's actual birthday that we went to the boring play I describe above. It was Madame De Sade, the latest of the Donmar's West End productions, starring Judi Dench, Francis Barber and Rosamund Pike. With a cast like that and the Marquis De Sade as a topic what could possibly go wrong? We we both really excited - not least to get out of the house together sans enfants and span some time as a couple. But what a stinker. All that effort, all those hours' rehearsal... And then some badly paid bloke - on his wife's birthday no less! - puts the boot in. Bloody critics.

Friday, 13 March 2009

There's no stoppin' the cretins from hoppin'

Three superheroes run past me on Walthamstow tube station platform. Spiderman, Superman and someone whose identity I can't be certain of... YFrontman, possibly. They run into my carriage, make off down the isle, then get off again and board the next one. One of them has a video camera and is in fits of giggles. I'm sitting there chuckling to myself like a madman. Is this what Comic Relief is all about? Not to the only other occupant of my carriage, a middle aged black woman who is staring after them as it they've just sworn at her. No red nose for her today, then.

Earlier in the week, I'm coming back from the Royal Court, buzzing from seeing the new Mark Ravenhill play, Over There. I review it very favourably, feeling unequivocally that seeing twins acting opposite each other is remarkable and that the story of East and West Berlin they perform is shocking, clever, funny and all the things that make going to the theatre such a joy. Later in the week, I can't resist seeing what other people have written about and it looks like I am in a minority - The Telegraph predictably savages it as politically naive, and the otherwise evenhanded Michael Billington in the Guardian is less than enthused. Does this make me wrong?

Everybody has different taste. The world would be a most tedious place otherwise. The guy whose office I share, spent a large chunk of January ripping the piss out of me for being on Twitter. He does this sporadically, when I do something he considers unbecoming, e.g: "Why are you reading the NME? Are you 17? Eh? Eh? No, is the answer, my friend so PUT IT DOWN and start behaving like a grown up!"

He was particularly vehement about Twitter - "It's for c*nts!" he ranted,"It's for students with nothing better to do than talk about what sort of coffee they've ordered in Starbucks." I try to defend it: "Actually, there are quite a few really interesting feeds, Financial Times, BBC Entertainment, Brian Eno..."
He is unrepentant:"Hey, ever heard of newsfeeds? So what do you need Twatter for?"
"I can tell people when the blog is up... tell people about the plays I'm reviewing..."
"Exactly! Back to my original point: Twitter is for c*nts!!!"

But fast forward to earlier this week. He leans over to me and asks, "Hey, have you tried Tweetdeck?" How things change. Not content with having embraced Twitter, he is now getting excited about laying out his respective Tweets on his desktop. Added to this he is banging on about Spotify the whole time.

My point? Well, back to the woman on the tube and those clashing reviews - we all have different opinions and tastes but - and this is the point, sometimes these opinions change. Adults are expected to be consistent, to stick to their guns. But kids don't have to adhere to the guns law. Maddy changes her mind daily, "I don't like tuna," she said, the day after she wolfed down a mountain of the stuff - that's what you do when you're five. She doesn't like the Charlie & The Chocolate Factory music any more either and her favourite colour is no longer pink. Praise be for that last one.

As you get older, people pigeonhole you - it saves time. So whilst I'm not likely to suddenly change course, Maddy tuna style, and decide I no longer like White Man In Hammersmith Palais, After Eights or Huckleberry Finn, I like the idea that I could for example say: you know what, that Bon Iver album is OK.

Incidentally this is just an example and not a statement of fact, I'm sure you'll be reassured to hear that I still think Bon Iver smells of wee. No, what I've been thinking about is some of the artists I tried to sign at V2 and whether I would still pursue them now.

100 record business years ago, when I was at V2 back in 2006, the first thing I wanted to sign was the subject of much blog-related excitement - a solo act from Albuquerque called Beirut, which was, as it turned out a solo artist called Zach Condon. I'm sure you know his stuff already as he has gone on to do quite well. His music on debut album Gulag Orkstar is a strange shuffle of folk and mariachi blended with European lyrical references most of which, other than the song titles, are indecipherable. There was undeniably a mystery the record, it shouldn't have worked but it did. Plus, I freely admit, there was the comforting seal of approval from lots of other people who were raving about it in blogs.

In the end he never signed to V2. We paid for him to come to London and meet the company but of course he met others while he was here and he liked 4AD more. His manager later told me that the reason for this was because they had signed Scott Walker for the love of his music rather than thinking that they would ever make any money out of him. Ha ha ha. Good luck with all that, I remember thinking. Did Condon aspire to making albums using meat being slapped for percussive purposes?

By the time the second album came out it had qualified as an album to be played on the marketing department's stereo. Beirut was a now cool name to drop (although, you had to wonder what he was thinking about the connotations of the name - actually, I asked him once, "There's a mystery to it... it's very evocative" he said.)

But despite our marketing team really liking it, I found myself unmoved by this follow up. It wasn't a million miles away from the first but it just wasn't doing the trick for me anymore. I have not heard the new Beirut album yet, but I read that it is a game of two halves, one of which is electro. Hmm, we shall see. I haven't totally done a Maddy on Beirut but I must admit that even the first album smells a bit of tuna now.

The next artist I tried to sign at V2 was Kate Nash - I'll save the full story for another time, suffice to say that you already know the outcome - she didn't sign to us. And you know what? Good move! I mean, we offered her a pretty good deal financially, but crucially the company was confused and afraid about what sort of artist she was - was she any good? being the underlying sentiment, I got from everyone. Yes, she was good but she did have the ability to miss the mark quite badly - The Shit Song being an example and Caroline Is A Victim being another. But other than this, she was talented and occasionally produced a song (Birds, for example) which seemed so effortlessly beautiful that it made the question of where she fitted in with Jamie T or the Klaxons or Lilly Allen seem entirely redundant. When the NME slated her first independent single, I had a queue of V2 people coming into my office saying "Oh no, the NME hate her! This is bad - do you think we should pull the deal?" I'm not joking, this really happened.

At the time, our plugger somewhat gleefully reported that George Ergatoudis, Head of Music at Radio 1 had said "Some people are going to lose a lot of money on Kate Nash" Well, you know what happened, somewhere along the line (around the time Foundations' Top 5 midweek came in), George, like my daughter, decided he liked tuna after all.

But I don't think I could listen to her album now. I still enjoy Foundations and Birds but on the whole, I feel the same way about Kate Nash as I do about Beirut - the novelty has worn off.

The one band I tried to sign at V2, who I still absolutely believe in, are Friendly Fires - and I'm pleased that they seem to very gradually be gaining a foothold despite not being feted in the same way as Late Of The Pier or other slightly more fashionable bands. A sold out night at the Forum - (that's the HMV Forum, pop pickers!) is impressive. Of course, I didn't get them either, partly due to the indifference of the marketing and promotions departments, who by this time had been given unofficial A&R duties by the increasingly panicking MD. But the main reason we never got Friendly Fires was due the fact that half way through courting them, I returned from their local pub in St Albans to discover that V2 had been sold to Universal. Boo hoo.

No one really wanted to sign Friendly Fires at the time and this was why I couldn't get the company excited, I think. It does help to know that others feel the same - makes you feel more comfortable. That's largely why Maddy went off tuna, I think - a friend of hers at school - possibly that pesky Carmen - told her that she didn't like it and after that all tuna betting was off. And that feeling of being in a minority never goes away, that's why I still feel odd about my review of Over There, despite still believing it to be a great night out. Another show I saw recently was so poor I could only muster one star for it and I felt pathetically pleased that other reviewers felt the same.

I just played To Earth With Love by Gay Dad as I walked back from dropping Maddy off at school this morning and it actually gave me that glorious bristly feeling on the back of my neck. That's the thing about music - like laughter on your own on a tube train, no matter how silly it might make you look, if it moves you, you can't help yourself.

Friday, 6 March 2009

"I never felt magic crazy as this..."

Spotify really is good, isn't it? It seems funny that only a couple of weeks ago that I wrote complaining about losing my blagging mojo and having missed all these new releases. And now, well, who needs their mojo when they've got that green icon on their desktop? I've heard everything I wanted to hear apart from David Byrne and Brian Eno's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today which I am now listening to here. Indeed the title of that album would appear to be perfect for what is going in with music online.

I spent a large chunk of Tuesday in a car with a friend driving up to Manchester. He and I were at the University there in the 80s and we were driving up to spec out a project for later this year. He's a record exec (of course! which of your so-called friends aren't? I hear you crow). His job requires him to be constantly in contact with people who work with and for him and so I sat in the passenger listening to his speakerphone conversations: lawyers telling him how he was "their guy" and how and they honestly wanted to sign to him, American executives telling him how genuinely excited about their projects they were , new employees telling him how sincerely they were looking forward to their job... It was a veritable sea of love and sincerity. It reminded of my A&R days and how so much of what got people out of bed depended on passion. It may sound like they're being insincere but you do really need to tap into some emotion to get through all the pain, rejection and terrible midweeks. It must be so hard to be like that now, knowing that so many less people are passionate about paying for your product.

I asked my pal - let's call him Michael - what would happen if the majors stopped financing new artists - what if they simply acknowledged that the one-success-in-ten-signings formula was not working for them and they invested their money in doing something else. He looked at me as if I was insane - "it will never happen," he said. He's probably right, but I wanted to talk hypothetically. What if it did?

In the article I wrote for the Times about the UK music industry doing OK, I suggested that without majors we would all return to folk music. Without their money, bands wouldn't get to the level of a Duffy or an Adelle, they would reach a local level of popularity by themselves and then stay there. The music business would become a cottage industry. Music would be people sitting in front rooms playing each other their work on Garageband - like a 21st century Victorian parlour. Or not. Perhaps the future is the majors limiting themselves to picking up acts who are already happening. To an extent this is already going on, but logically this is exclusively what majors should do to survive -remove the element of doubt.

But what about the sublimity of talent spotting? Signing something you really believe in - where the unknown artist gets a deal on musical merit alone? You know, good old fashioned A&R? I really don't think that happens so much any more - there just isn't the money.

"A more sensible question," said my learned record exec mate, "would be: what happens if EMI and Warners go bust? How will the industry deal with that one?"

Blimey, there is a thought. It's no secret that the two smaller majors are in trouble, in a pre-Hands world they were trying to buy each other for years, like schoolkids playing Slapsies in the playground. If they went down, then the two remaining big boys, Universal and Sony, would battle it out over back catalogue like Queen and Fleetwood Mac as well as the paltry selection of current stars like Coldplay or Michael Buble. And then what? Would booking agencies be the new big boys to compete with them? Would merchandisers take over?

We stopped for a sandwich on the motorway, still talking. I brought up the subject of the BRITs - most people in the industry know that the show is produced by Helen Terry - she's been doing it for years. But from my distanced position it now seems to me that having the former Karma Chameleon backing singer producing the BRITs is odd. "What else does she produce?" I asked "Don't know - I think that's it" he said. "They should give some other backing singers a go," I say, "What about Clare Torry? She'd do a great BRITs" "Good point," he said, making a note to raise it at the next BPI meeting. At least I think that's what he was writing.

Back in the car we neared Manchester. It was of course, raining. Funny, we're such old men we both spent about 10 minutes oooing and ahing at how the city had changed. Fallowfield was all fields in our day. Culture Club were still releasing records when we were there, keeping Helen Terry in business, informing us that war was stupid. Our First Year was the year of Band Aid and I remember how at the Owens Park Revue, some rugby lads from my friend's floor in Owens Park formed a group who used the Feed The World tune but sang about that year's big issue: "Kill the queers," they sang, in front of a concert hall, packed with 1st year students, "Let them know they've all got AIDS." Of course, being students we used our right to protest vociferously. But no one discussed getting a mandate to kick the shit out of them. I wonder what those guys are doing now. Probably did quite well in sales.

On the way back the rain had turned to sleet. We took a look at the old house off the Burton Rd where we used to live - apparently according to Michael, the man who went on to become the Doves' manager was living opposite us at the time. If only we'd known.

We listened to Huw Stephens sit in for Zane Lowe on Radio 1. He played the new Rakes single, 1989, which sounds great. Blimey, it's taken them a while hasn't it? They were doing demos for me when I was at V2 a year and a half ago. They were never the quickest of bands when it came to producing anything. This is maybe their weakness because the music they produce sounds instant and exciting as if they've just plugged in and gone for it. A lovely and very funny bunch - they used to call me Boddicker because of my alleged resemblance to the villain in Robocop. Bastards.

It was always a source of real anguish to me that they were constant losing out to labelmates Bloc Party in sales and press coverage. The Rakes, by far the more interesting and melodic of the two, made a fantastic album both musically and lyrically about living in London (OK, so I A&R'd it, so I'm slightly biased) and yet Bloc Party who delivered another helping of yelping - also about living in London - got all the gushing reviews and sales. I still can't listen their The Prayer single from that second album without thinking of the "Is it so wrong....?" line and all the reworkings of it I got the A&R department to sing: "Is it so wrong... to fellate an otter" etc etc.

After we got bored of Radio 1, we listened to some of the music we'd brought with us. "How often do you get listen to your favourite stuff, Michael? I mean, when I was in A&R I felt guilty listening to music that wasn't new releases or mixes or demos - anything connected with the job..." "I have to listen to my favourites," he said, "have to remind myself constantly why I do the job." So that's how he's managed to do so well.

After this we played iPod tennis. Michael kicked off with something he knew I wouldn't know - a sixties beat singer whose name I have, of course, forgotten. I grabbed the jackplug and just about matched him with the Stylistics tearjerker Stone In Love With You. He responded with the quite superb Biology by Girls Aloud - I came back with This Perfect Day by the Saints. "Here's a Michael & Ben classic!" he shouted and launched into the Smithereens' Behind The Wall Of Sleep.

It was like we were back at Owens Park for a moment. Until Michael had to take a call from an American manager and pretend to be an adult again. As we got back to London I played my ace - a mash up of Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On and Nick Drake' s Northern Sky which transcends crassness and manages to sound as if the two are in the studio together - if you haven't heard it then I urge you to.

I can't tell you what we went up to Manchester for yet. Suffice to say it has nothing to do with his day job. But it's not about the destination is it? It's about the journey. And during the journey, it became apparent that whatever happens to the record business, whether Michael continues to do what he does, whether Spotify replaces purchasing, whether EMI or Warners goes, whatever happens people like us, like you, will still find ways of enjoying the tunes.