Friday, 29 May 2009

Could you furnish me with some of your dubstep wares?

Me: Oh hello, it's Ben from V2, can I speak to Oliver please?
Bloke: Who?
Me: Er, Oliver Jones... Skream?
Bloke: No, who are you?
Me: Ben Wardle - from V2. I think I spoke to you a couple of days ago...
Bloke: Oh yeah. What was it about again?
Me: It's about a remix...

To paraphrase Norm from Cheers: Remixers - can't live with them... Would you pass the beer nuts? Why I didn't want to like the La Roux album is precisely because of the fella above - Skream. But first let me give you some background.

I was writing a piece on 'The Red Lady' for a Portuguese magazine and I thought that rather than just write a load of old biased conjecture based on hearing two songs and knowing she had a funny haircut, I really should do the decent thing and listen to her record and interview her. Well, the latter never happened because she was 'on holiday' but Universal did hook me up with their amazing digital pass system and before I knew it I had the album in my inbox - surely this is the best way of getting music to fans, it was just as fast as iTunes and frankly a better service.

Anyway, the album is genuinely great. OK, In For The Kill has been in the charts for 10 weeks, has only just left the top five but is far from the best track on the record. But, I'll be honest here, I didn't really get the single - the voice sounded too strained, out of its comfort zone and after a while the tune just seemed to go round and round without getting anywhere. Hey, Mr W, that's pop music, buddy, get used to it, I hear you say. And, as ever, you are right. I am listening to it now and it's one of those records - and songs - that feels like it's always been with us. But once you've heard the album - and judging from my travels last week you probably have, as it seems to be the most widely disseminated pre-release in recent history- yes, once you've heard the album (out on June 29, listeners) you'll get a much fuller idea of Elly Jackson's voice. Bulletproof, the next single, is a stonker. Yes, I did actually write that word down.

But I was cynical about La Roux for the reason many people initially were - because when In For The Kill was getting its early plays three, four months ago, the buzz was all around the Skream remix. It had nothing to do with the original track. This remix is great, markedly different from the actual track and wholly in keeping with the dubstep hipster's previous releases. But this only made me extra reluctant to like La Roux - and here's the rub: a couple of years ago I had tried repeatedly and failed to get Skream to do a remix for one of my acts. Actually, worse, I couldn't even get the dubstepper to return my calls.

I was A&Ring Lethal Bizzle at the time for V2. This is a whole other story in itself and I'll save it for another time, suffice to say here that the Walthamstow grime hero is a genuinely lovely chap whose only fault is perhaps the length of time he takes to get around to recording things. Bizarre, because once in the studio he would zip through stuff with lightning speed.

Anyway, at his insistence I'd been trying to open his ears up to things he wouldn't normally listen to and getting him to work outside his grime comfort zone. He loved Gallows at SXSW so I got them to remix a single, after that I got The Enemy to do the same and both remixes turned out great. Lethal (for that is what we call him) also worked with the massively underrated Akira The Don on tracks which featured samples from The Clash and The Ruts (there is even a superb track Akira did which samples The Breeders' Cannonball, which will never see the light of day for Kim Deal reasons, sadly.)

But we needed something hip for the second single and what better - and indeed cooler than that summer's underground dance craze dubstep and its coolest representative Skream If you haven't heard his debut Skream! it's worth going and purchasing a copy - it's full of Hitchcockian menace and cheap beats - like a council estate Portishead.

Skream turned out not to have a proper manger at the time - he appeared to be based out of a record shop in Croydon. At least I think it was a record shop. Maybe it was a proper office with fax machines and lavish itineraries pinned to the wall. Or maybe not. I phoned it several times and the conversation would start as per the exchange above and continue thus:

Me: It's about a remix. For Lethal Bizzle...
Bloke. Oh yeah, that's right, yeah.
Me: Is he about? You said he would be around today...
Bloke: Nah. He's not about today.
Me: Right. Did you pass the message on though?
Bloke. The message? (Sound of other conversation and laughter in the background)
Me: About Lethal?
Bloke. No, he's not bin in.
Me: But did you pass the message on?
Bloke: (laughing uproariously at something going on in Skream HQ, then returning to phone) Yo...
Me: Hi, I just wondered if did you pass the message on?
Bloke: Nah, like I say, he's not bin in
Me: And you can't pass his mobile number on?
Bloke: Nah sorry.... (to some colleagues in the Skream HQ in the background) Oh wicked, man! That's mega!
Me: Hello?
Bloke: Yeah - I'll tell him you called. (Line goes dead)

So Skream wasn't exactly biting our hands off on this one. To be fair, he wasn't getting a whole lot of remix work at that time which either means he was avoiding calls like mine or he was sitting at home wondering whether he should sack his assistant. I'd like to think it was the latter as he's since done a fair few remixes.

Dealing with producers, remixers and their representatives is - or certainly was - one of the main parts of the A&R job. There's a scene in John Niven's book where an A&R man is asked for his producer suggestions in a meeting and he lists a very impressive line-up of people he says he's considering. It later becomes apparent that all he's done is quickly look at that week's album chart (which always lists the producer alongside the artist presumably for this very purpose). And in theory it's that easy. Ever wondered why suddenly a producer or remixer seems to be everywhere? It's because, as William Goldman says in Adventures in The Screen Trade, "nobody knows anything" so if someone has had a sniff of a hit it's likely that they'll be enlisted to produce whatever the big signings are which the record company needs to be successful- and because these acts are the safe bets it's likely they will be successful and so the producer's Midas-like reputation will grow even more. Then eventually, a couple of surprise stiffs later, the producer's mortality is revealed and the A&R men move on to fresh pastures. But there are a handful of perennials who are safe pairs of hands - certainly I'd cite Stephen Street as one. Graham Coxon, who Street produced in Blur and who Coxon continues to use for his solo stuff, recently described 'Streety' as someone who is 'consistent', not perhaps at first glance the biggest accolade but if you're an artist it's a huge plus. Artists reserve the right to be erratic, blow hot and cold and you definitely don't want someone behind the console who is like that. Even when Street makes a dull record it's always redeemed by lovely little bits of detail - and you can hear everything, nothing is buried.

I always tried to use interesting producers and remixers - not go for the obvious list of that week's chart winners. I'd try and find people who were new or had perhaps not had the breaks but I thought - or their manager suggested - might be good. Sometimes this worked (Akira The Don had never produced a record before Bizzle for example) and sometimes it didn't. I once was given the task of looking after Aimee Mann for one summer in nascent Britpop years. She was making the follow up to Whatever (a nascent Britpop album if ever there was one) and had recorded a song, a duet with Glen Tilbrook, called That's Just What You Are which needed mixing. I got a producer called Marcus Dravs involved who was a personable young German guy who had done some engineering with Brian Eno and had some good ideas. He mixed the track really well, I thought, bringing out a modernity that it needed . But guess what? Aimee loathed it and bless her, told me in no uncertain terms. Ah well. Still a decade later Marcus is having some sort of last laugh as he's now producing Arcade Fire and Coldplay.

It was the artistic process which always interested me - the listening to the tracks, the tweaking of certain things which subsequently threw a new perspective on everything else. Sometimes too much bloody perspective. What I was less good at was the haggling - the fee, the percentages, the deal. I was out earlier this week meeting someone at The Strongroom, a studio in Hoxton and in the bar opposite was a meeting of the Music Producers' Guild. Outside was the manager of two sizeable acts and we speculated on what these producers might be talking about. "How they are going to get paid" he said bluntly. He then went on to point out how unfair it has always been that producers have always commanded a percentage (points) of an artist's royalties in perpetuity: "Sure, share some of the action for the first couple of years but after that goodbye and thank you very much!"

As record companies lose their power and artists with a fanbase gain more leverage, this could become a reality but back when I used to negotiate with producer managers you were really made to feel who was boss when you wanted one of their top producers. I remember trying to get a very well known dance remixer for a Pop Will Eat Itself single who was managed by an portly industry legend who shall remain nameless. After the inevitable industry small talk he cut to the chase and said what the deal was. I told him what I was thinking (IE MUCH LESS), and explained why given what sort of group PWEI were etc etc. He listened, then quietly told me I could fuck off if I thought his producer would take any less and put the phone down. Most producer managers, I must stress are charming and open to negotiate but I was always surprised by the disregard for manners that would occasionally come out of the blue - one big name manager with whom I was trying to negotiate, cut me off mid sentence and said "Just fax me the bloody deal and make sure it's not Mickey Mouse!" I ask you, is that what a Cambridge University education achieves?

So maybe the boy with the goldfish attention span in Skream's office was giving me the dubstep equivalent of a fob off; he may not have been to charm school or even Cambridge but in his own syncopated way, he was saying: "We're not interested in your Grime, Mr Record Company - never call us again".Or perhaps the day that La Roux called, Skream like Godot had finally shown up and taken the call.

9 comments:

  1. interesting stuff ben.
    all the more so as in my RSS reader your blog is directly above the feed from Akira the Don.
    Oh, and ta for the tip off re that Cannonball track, i cant believe Adam let that one go unused
    .. it must be on one of his many mixtapes somewhere.

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  2. main thing for me on this is that ms jackson is/was a native of the burgeoning london se24 culture attack in my 'manor' of herne hill. prior to that young adele, who's also done rather well, lived up the road from me in tulse hill. dubstep, 2step, front step - no idea!

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  3. First and foremost I just wanted to congratulate you on an excellent blog. I signed up for that RSS thing just so as I could read it on Vigo on my Blackberry. I particularly liked the one about Elvis Costello (?) taking a big dump.

    So, I was reading this one and I thought to myself: "This guy comes over as a pretty approachable chap, why not send him a copy of my record?" Then I thought: "Nah, he probably gets that all the time and probably won't get the time to listen to it anyway."
    Then I went to the pub, drank several glasses of beer and thought: "fuck it, I'll do it anyway, can't hurt."

    So, here I sit more than a little bit intoxicated sending you a myspace link:
    http://www.myspace.com/theforcefieldkids
    and a Rapidshare link:
    http://tinyurl.com/homeep
    in the probably vain hope that you'll find time to have a look at it and send us some feedback on a busy Monday when you've got better things to do. Still, feedback from an experienced major label person such as yourself would be very useful and very much appreciated.

    It's quite a good record though, loads of label people and A&R types have given us some very positive, constructive feedback but sadly no-one has yet taken a chance on us beyond a digital distribution deal. That's fine though, learn more this way.

    Uh, that's it. You can get at me at dfntrecords@hotmail.co.uk should you wish.

    Thanks and that!

    Nick

    :-)

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  4. Please could you write an article about Aimee Mann?

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  5. Ben,

    I am surprised that an A&R man with the status such as yours is still being "parred"/given the run-around by these dubstep guys; I always thought that kind of stuff stops happening once you move from record company work experience kid to staffer. I am not surprised by the attitude you encountered however (remind me to tell you about my attempts to get an unnamed 'dubsteppah' to appear on the panel of a famous UK music industry conference).

    Anyway, I'm getting in touch with you as I'm an A&R man/scout in training - except I'm hosting the training sessions, which is not ideal; but I reckon I'd stand a better chance of getting a Skream remix than you obviously fared. Is there any chance I can get my foot on the A&R ladder with either V2 if you are still there(which I know has been bought out) or any of your future A&R projects?

    I can leave an email for you to get in touch if you wish.

    Kind regards.

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  6. if I were to take a call like that here at warners, I would honestly fire myself afterwards...

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  7. Would you like to answer this Ben!? (Copied fro Twitter): @I_Skream If someone wanted to ask you for a remix, how would they best go about it? about 22 hours ago from UberTwitter in reply to I_Skream

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  8. Ha ha - well, let's hope he's sacked the fella from the record shop, otherwise this persons is out of luck.

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  9. hello!! Very interesting discussion glad that I came across such informative post. Keep up the good work friend. Glad to be part of your net community.

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