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.


  1. As a music consumer, it's so hard to think that there are still people in the industry who are so passionate about what they do.

    This was a great read, Ben.

  2. Hey Dale, yes, that's the mistake everyone makes when they talk about A&R men being cynical, heartless bastards. With the exception of John Niven whose book promotes the above cliche, A&R people are invariably foolishly in love with music and put this amor fou over any logic or thought processes which might say: Give up, you are never going to sell any records!!

  3. she had hair like Jeannie Shrimpton back in 1965....

  4. Ben, the Drake/Gaye mashup is genius! That's what modern music is all about, he says, mercifully aware that both original tracks are almost 30 years old. Fantastic!

  5. One moment, I'll post mine soon. just wanted to say I love your new site!