Diary Of A Musician
Unsigned + Signed
Published in PM February 2009
People + Opinion : Diary Of A Musician
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The Signed artist
I am lying half-naked in a cold bath, trying to get a photo of my face coming out of the water, but I am shivering so much that each shot makes me look psychotic. Thankfully, the photographer gives up and moves on to another of his sadistic plans, leaving me to wring out my underwear and wear my trousers in the commando style. I hate this part of the deal, the 'promo shoot'. It is the part of the process that seems as far away from the music as you can get — trying to package the band as a 'look' rather than a 'sound'. I hope the camera doesn't capture my embittered soul.
We practise for hours the next day, in preparation for a gig for a private party the day after. We are getting paid a lot of money to play for 25 minutes at a fashion label's launch party, our first ever 'corporate gig'. The label's boss is a big fan of ours, apparently, and asked for us to play "at any cost". "Tell them we'll do it for two grand," I jokingly emailed our manger. "I told them you'd do it for five, and they said yes," was the reply, and now we are in a rehearsal room, shitting ourselves, trying to come up with a set list that we want to play but that won't send people running from the room with their hands over their ears. We manage to get one that we think walks the fine line between enjoyment for the band and fashionista-like, and hammer it out a few times.
The next day I take the train to London. The band splitter van has broken down, so we've had to hire a Transit, which only fits three in the front. Normally, I would jump on the amps in the back and ride up illegally, but we are trying to be professional for this gig, and so I take the train. I get to the venue and take a look around. It is a warehouse in East London, and has just been decked out with palm trees, a beach hut bar, modern art on the walls and a disco/live room decked out with a state-of-the-art sound system. No expense has been spared for this night, and I start to wonder what kind of people will be coming.
The band soon arrives, and we set up our stuff and chat with the organiser. We want to get out as soon as we have finished playing, at about 11.30pm, which means lugging all of our amps and drums through a crowd of dancing fashion folk. The organiser is adamant that everything stays on the stage until the last guest leaves, which will be about 4am. After a few heated words, we give in and agree to stay until closing, which means we'll get to bed at about 7am. Later on, I get 'the talk' from the organiser: "You're getting paid a lot of money for this, and if you play it right, you might get offered more gigs like this. Just remember, you're the hired help, not the main attraction." Suitably reduced, I join the band by the free bar and watch as streams of beautiful people flow through. For the whole night, waiters and waitresses hand out free champagne, oysters, little snacks and shots of expensive vodka. "Doesn't look like a credit crunch here, eh?" our bassist says.
We start the set a bit nervously, to a curious but unmoving crowd. After half an hour, we are soaked with sweat, and the fashion label boss is on stage with us, dancing manically. "Sweet," I think, and catch eyes with the organiser. He's grinning. If we can get more gigs like this, we're going to ride the economic collapse out just fine.
The Unsigned artist
In the run-up to Christmas and beyond it was hard to fit a gig in edgeways, but things were certainly buzzing behind the scenes. First up, we had a meeting in North London with the promoters of the Unsigned Festival, which we had got through to the first round of. Sloping in at 12pm on a Sunday afternoon, we were ushered into our seats in the back room of the venue with countless other acts to watch the promotional video that would count as an introduction to the whole affair. Looking at the groups around, most were of a similar age to us, some were quite young with their dad/manager to hand, guiding them through their first brush with fame, and some were of the more seasoned variety, treating this as their last chance. We were given an information pack and magazine to look through before the video commenced. Flicking through it, I was struck by the limited variety of acts that had made the last rounds. Most were either indie rock acts, DJ turntablists or retro mod groups, and there seemed to be little space for solo/songwriter groups like us.
The video kicked off with stills of last year's musicians performing some outlandish acts and guitarists ripping through their fretboards with gurning faces, all over a soundtrack of cheesy rock (supplied, naturally, by a runner-up of last year's competition). As we were watching it, all I could think of were the talent contests that seem to pervade our screens yearly (X Factor, Pop Idol and so on), and how they turn people's dreams and actual talent to money-spinning ideas — the irony being that in the so-called digital age, where the artist apparently holds the whip, these shows and unsigned contests exploit everyone's dreams and talent in true ruthless music business style. I wondered if this contest would be any different
After the video, the fame-hungry artists listened as the London promoter told us how each stage of the contest would progress, with factors like audience voting counting for much in the first rounds, and music executives and A&R men judging in the later stages. The final of the contest would be held in the London O2 Indigo arena, with the big prize being £5000 to the winner, along with a load of kit and recording time. Judging by the final entrants for last year's festival, I don't think we measure up to their expectations of a winning group. But as the drummer pointed out, even if we only get through the first couple of rounds it'll still be good exposure and something to shout about.
Talking of which, our bassist had more than something to shout about when he returned from a quick post-work drink in the pub one Thursday night. Sitting next to two men having another post-work beverage, David Bowie's 'Let's Dance' was being piped from the jukebox. After much consternation and a suspicion that maybe Iggy Pop had written it, they asked the bassist, who duly told them it was actually the Thin White Duke himself. After an hour's worth of chatting about musical taste, the two men revealed themselves to be one major label record manager and the other an A&R for another major label. Like a leopard stalking some musical prey, and with a few more drinks in his system, Steve let rip that he was in a band and asked if the major label man would like a listen through his iPod to our tracks. Indeed, he had no qualms, so listened to the latest two songs we'd just recorded. Satisfied that he had just listened to the next big thing (or said he liked it just to shut Steve up), he gave my bassist his card, suggested we email him and set up a meeting, and said that he would at least put us in contact with people he knew in the industry and offer some help. Chatting to Steve the next day, he buoyed my enthusiasm by saying that the major label man had really liked the songs. But the only hole in the story for me was the fact that these two music gurus thought Iggy Pop had written and performed 'Let's Dance'. It does go to show, though, that even those who hold all the cards in the music industry can still get it wrong from time to time. 0
Published in PM February 2009
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