Resonate is an event-type-thing where the British Council and the NZ Music Industry Commission team up and ship over some British music industry people to share their wisdom with New Zealanders. Previous years’ guests included John Peel and Jamelia.
This year we were treated to Stephen Jones (senior A&R guy at Universal), Polly Birkbeck (PR person at V2 records), Rachel Hendry (independent PR person) and Conor McNicholas (EDITOR OF THE NME!).
I attended four of the discussion panels over two days – “The future of the music press”, “Singing trends”, “The NME” and “The great music scrum” where various combinations of the four guests discussed various topics.
My favourite panel was “Signing trends” where Stephen Jones showed up looking utter hungover from the night before (out seeing bands!), spent most of the time slumped in an almost horizontal position on the on-stage couch, but still managed to be absolutely on form, talking and giving out brilliant advice.
I took copious notes throughout all the panels, but I noticed that similar themes kept coming up, so I’ve written up my notes in those themes. I tended to only take notes on stuff that interested me, so this is not a comprehensive record. I’ve also offered a little bit of commentary where I had something to add.
The NME, the British music press, and writing.
The secret to making the NME (or indeed any magazine) is to “give the readers what they want.” But the problem is that when asked, the average NME reader says they want the NME to be a serious, cutting-edge music publication, but in actual fact the more gossipy kind of articles are what sells. So the secret is to find the right mix.
It’s said that being mentioned in the NME is a sign that an Indie band has made it in Britain. If you’re not good enough to make it into the NME, than you are pretty much rooted.
A few times people asked Conor if the NME took money from publicists to write favourable articles about certain musicians. He was adamant that the NME was not involved in chequebook journalism. The only payment they would accept was if a record company paid travel expenses to get the journalist to where the musician was.
Because the NME is the only weekly music publication of its kind (Melody Maker – RIP), it doesn’t have as much competition as, say, monthly music magazines. This means there’s less competition for stories and less pressure to yield to offers of interviews from record companies.
The British press cover music a lot more now than they used to. For example, Kurt Cobain’s death was all but ignored by the British press, with only music media giving it any in-depth coverage. When the press realised what a significant cultural event it actually was, it became a wake-up call. It was noted that the shock of seeing the “Robbie leaves Take That” cover of The Sun wasn’t because Robbie had left, but because The Sun had stuck it on their cover.
The NME went through a rough patch in the late ’90s. Britpop was over and dance music was huge. The old-school NME reporters, who had played a part in the rise of Britpop, had let it go to their heads. Obscure art-wank bands were being championed, when your average NME reader was more interested in dance music. A change had to happen, and it did.
Does the NME build up bands only to tear them down when the difficult second album comes along? Well, there’s not a specific NME agenda along those lines. If a band releases a second album that’s genuinely disappointing compared to the better first album, the NME will reflect that in their review.
The NME is not a cabal of cool; when the NME works, it’s the voice of the fans, maaan.
The NME usually picks up new readers when they’re about 17-18 and will usually have them hooked for the next 8-10 years. The NME will always stay focussed on the kind of music that 17-18-year-olds like, because that, my friends, is always where the future lies. So when readers get to their mid- to late-20s, they’ll suddenly find that NME’s content less relevant and start to complain that it isn’t as good as it used to be. But that happens with every generation.
The NME is owned by a media company called IPC, which is in turn owned by Time Magazine, which in in turn owned by Time Warner. Crikey!
When Conor goes to gigs, he spends much of the time checking out the audience, rather than the bands. Because the way the audience reacts is a good way to telling just how good the band is.
What goes on the cover of the NME? Things that will make it sell. The cover is about attracting sales from people who aren’t regular readers. The cover is about 90% of what makes people buy an issue.
Interestingly, covers in America aren’t so important as most magazine sales are done through discounted subscriptions. The magazine can guarantee advertisers a certain amount of readers, and sells ads accordingly. It’s a bit like radio in that the product is practically given away free to give advertisers an audience.
When the NME puts an up-and-coming band on the cover, those issues won’t sell as well as putting an established band on the cover. But while Coldplay and Green Day sell well, no one wants to see them on the cover every week, so it is important to put new bands on the cover. The first Franz Ferdinand NME cover (“This band will change your life.”) didn’t sell well, but they were so excited about the band that they felt they absolutely had to give them the cover. They were right.
What makes a good article? It’s about conveying exactly what it is about that band that makes them worthy of having an article written about them. It’s not just about statistics and facts, it’s about that thing that makes people be fans and go out and buy their music and queue for hours in the rain to see them play live. Capture that in writing.
Conor said he isn’t so impressed when people send him samples of their writing and they’ve written about a gig that was, say, two weeks ago. The NME has a tight one-week turnaround, so he’s far more impressed if someone sends him a review of a gig that was last night.
Conor had some good advice for budding NME writers – keep a blog. Writing in it frequently will improve your writing and it will also demonstrate that you can write to a deadline (even if it is your own one).
I reckon being able to show a year’s worth of recent reviews, interviews, opinion pieces on your blog is far more useful than having a couple of yellowing clippings of stuff you wrote five years ago for your high school or uni magazine.
There were lots of questions about The Datsuns. Polly is the Datsuns’ PR person at V2, and the Datsuns seem to be a band who has achieved a lot of success in Britain, so a good case study.
Forget the Air New Zealand ad. The Datsuns didn’t just go from playing around Hamilton to playing in London and get signed the next day.
Jack White of the White Stripes had been impressed by the Datsuns and got them doing support on an Australian tour. At that stage, anything Jack White liked was golden, so that gave the Datsuns a lot of cred.
They came to London with a tiny bit of buzz already around them. They played live shows and were brilliant live. People were queuing up, begging to be let in. Polly reckons she rammed through the throngs to get in to see them play.
So is it necessary for a band to physically be in London (or New York, or LA) to make it? Stephen Jones said that if you really believe that one of those cities is THE place to make it, then to go for it. But don’t just go because you think it might be quite a good idea or because it worked for the Datsuns.
He wants bands that really believe in themselves. Ones who are truly passionate about what they do, not the sort who are just, um, sort of, um, just seeing how it goes.
Having your own artistic control is not necessarily a good thing. Much was made of the Datsun’s record deal with V2 that gave them enough control that they could essentially make their album exactly how they wanted it.
The panellists all agreed that the Datsuns are absolutely brilliant live, but had been unable to capture that brilliance on their recorded songs. The first album was good, but suffered from poor production, while the second album had better production but didn’t have enough good songs.
Maybe if their record company had had more control over the finished product, they might have made the Datsuns go away for six months and work on their songs some more.
Music Biz Stuff
Trust is important. Make sure that you have a really good trustworthy relationship with the people you work with – your manager, lawyer, PR people.
There is a lot of intense rivalry between British record companies. When there is a lot of buzz surrounding a band then things will really heat up. Basic agreements are signed on the back of restaurant menus – timing is all important. Desirable artists have demanded things written in their contracts, like expensive underwear.
Universal music publishing’s biggest-earning song is Elton John’s “Your Song,” but its biggest-earning piece of music is the oh-so-aptly named theme to “Who wants to be a millionaire.”
“Can’t get you out of my head” was originally written for Sophie Ellis Bextor, but she didn’t like it and it ended up going to Kylie.
(Does my handwriting deceive me, or did Justin Hawkins from the Darkness really co-write the Pop Idol theme song? [Nah, it was co-written by Cathy Dennis, who also co-wrote “Can’t get you out of my head” – Ed])
Universal won’t accept unsolicited demos from musicians or songwriters and will send them back unopened (but other major labels do accept them). Universal make their new signings through lawyers and managers.
Are indies getting big and are major labels on the way out? No, there have been some indie successes, but often indie labels are subsidiaries of major labels. Major labels aren’t so evil, anyway. Often a big-selling pop act will generate enough money for the label that it then has room to take on smaller, more niche artists, e.g. Take That pays for Beth Orton.
How do you get your band noticed in the UK? You’ve got to stand out, which is hard. American bands are following in the footsteps of the White Stripes and the Strokes by trying to get noticed in the UK first. Word of mouth helps (witness the Datsuns), as does a good press officer, but if you’re an unsigned band on a budget, where do you get a press officer who likes you so much she’ll work for free?
Get a lawyer to check out contacts and stuff before you sign (!) Don’t go for the lawyer who’ll promise you the most money.
Beware of new marketing tricks. “Street teams” aren’t too bad – that’s where fans are recruited to promote a band in exchange for merchandise and other goodies.
There are also people who are paid by record labels to go onto internet forums and pose as fans, writing good things about their “favourite” band. I’ve seen these on NZmusic.com – the signs to look out for are people who’ve never posted before, who’ve joined NZM on the day they posted, people who post a URL with some sort of referral link in it, and cut and paste text you’ll find on other music forums if you google it, and of course the band in question is often shit.
But what elicited genuine gasps of shock from the audience was news of those evil marketing techniques where people are paid to have conversations in public about a new band (or whatever). “So, that new Hootie and Blowfish CD, man, that totally rocks my world!!!”
Stephen Jones doesn’t believe that music should be given away for free – whether it’s a free download off a band’s website or a promo CD stuck to the front of a magazine. One of the bands he’s working with at the moment has a song available for a 99 pence download. Music you have to pay for is perceived as being more valuable, more desirable. If a band gives away their music, does it mean they don’t think it’s good enough to be paid for?
Sometimes a band is good enough to be signed, but not good enough to tour, record or release anything yet.
Stephen Jones talked about a band he’s working with at the moment. He’s signed them, but has spent about a year with them giving them time to get better. He’s toured them under fake names so they can get lots of live experience and work on their songs.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were another band that was really excellent live and had a huge amount of buzz surrounding them. They were signed amid a flurry of dollar signs. However, their debut album didn’t have enough good songs to make an excellent album. It was disappointing and didn’t sell anywhere near as well as has been expected.
Stephen Jones said that of the bands he’d seen in NZ, many had excellent stagecraft, they were really great live, but he felt that a lot were ultimately let down by their songs.
I’ve noticed this too. Bands here are quick to criticise their on-stage performance, but never seem to critique their songwriting or be open to feedback about their songs. It’s as if that once a song is ready to be played live, then that’s it – there’s no room for improvement. I’ve seen one local band play a song over the past two years from its debut to it becoming a setlist staple and it hasn’t changed at all, even though it does need some work.
It’s infuriating when a band has the seeds of a good song but it’s let down by stuff like bad lyrics, going on too long, dull patches, etc.
I think it’s the old problem of becoming so familiar with a piece of work that you lose the ability to objectively critique it. Ever heard someone say they’ve listened to their album/watched their film so often that they don’t know if it’s good or not? Get an outside opinion.
Stephen said that bands shouldn’t be afraid to work with a songwriter to hone their songs. But I think there’s a perception amongst the NZ music-buying public that performing a song you didn’t write (not a cover version) is somehow wrong, that it’s evil “manufactured” music.
Stephen said people should just get over that, and reminded us Elvis didn’t write any of the songs he sang.
He also said that a lot of brilliant songwriters still want to be pop stars and it can be very difficult to convince them to let other people perform their songs.