African Music (Part 3)
Having recently released his own independent LP, 'Oh Africa', we asked Sound On Sound reader Kofi Busia to write about his experiences. In this the third and final part of his story, he reveals his discoveries about the record industry and explains why he set up his own record label.
Having recently released his own independent LP, 'Oh Africa', we asked Sound On Sound reader Kofi Busia to write about his experiences. In this the third and final part, he reveals his discoveries about the record industry and explains why he set up his own label.
Before we get going this month, I would like to quote from just a couple of the reviews my album, 'Oh Africa', has received since its release.
"...(he) builds rhythm patterns that are unexpected, fascinating, and often inspired. It's heartfelt, and a back-streets triumph, really succeeding in ways that tens of hard-working African club bands have never yet done." New Musical Express
"Kofi Busia adopts an entirely novel and seductive approach... he creates a unique blend of Western pop and the music and rhythms of West Africa... with his clear, compelling enunciation and gentle personal touch, he has the potential to become a significant stylist." The Times
"... the set mixes African rhythms with lyrics about missionaries or slavery. It's successful..." The Guardian
I started with these for several reasons. Firstly, of course, to get you to go out and buy the album! But there are other reasons which we will come to in the conclusion.
Last month, we left me sitting with a whole album's worth of material - and a huge pile of rejection letters. (Virgin three times, Island twice, EMI twice, CBS twice, WEA twice, and countless others at least once apiece). A familiar story?
I am sure nobody out there needs me to tell them that the music business is a very difficult and soul-destroying arena to try and enter. The baffling thing to understand is why this should be so. The record charts are always so depressing - re-runs, cover versions, re-releases, re-mixes, rehashes of past hits, and the same old mega-produced, mega-sampled sounds. You would have thought that the whole scene was just crying out for new talent, creativity and new directions. Why, then, is it so hard for newcomers to make headway?
After having got suitably downhearted at my total lack of progress, I eventually decided not to take any of this lying down. First off, I got people whose credibility I respected to listen to the music on my album. The general feeling was that I had done something worthwhile which stood just as good a chance as anything else around. The brutal fact to be faced, though, was that nobody was going to give me a 'fair chance'.
Getting a record contract is all a matter of someone's opinion and being in the right place at the right time. As long as the instruments and vocals are all in tune and everything is roughly in time, then the rest is down to the following:
A. Where they heard about you. This is most important. A demo tape sent through the post without a solid recommendation simply will not cut any ice with the A&R men. It will qet sent straight back with, at the very most, a photocopied note saying 'This is promising but...'
B. Your track record. It is unfortunate but true - nobody likes to take risks.
C. How they feel at that particular time. (Let me put it this way - some of the very same people who initially turned me down are now getting excited about the material I have produced!) I eventually said to myself: 'This is supposed to be a democracy. Freedom of choice and all that. People have died for that ideal. So get out there on the streets and let the people decide.' After a lot of thought and a lot of research I came to the following five conclusions:
1. Record companies are businesses. Forget 'creativity' and 'talent'. They have to compete in the market place and success is not measured by artistic integrity but by sales and profits. This comes down to signing artists/music that sells. And who is most likely to produce a hit? Why - someone who has already made a couple, not some unknown bozo with a demo tape. Without a hit you have zero credibility. It's a fact of life you just have to accept. It's a vicious circle. You won't get signed without a couple of hits, a proven gig record, or a recommendation from a 'well-respected source'. And how do you achieve all this? Why - release your own record, of course! The entire industry runs on those all-important chart placings.
2. The technology in/surrounding the music industry has changed out of all proportion over the last few years. Record companies have yet to catch up with this fact. In order to understand how they have developed, it is necessary to go back to the 1960s.
The Beatles (as a particular example) were creative and adventurous, exploring new sounds and ideas in a way that has been unmatched since. One legacy left by them was the considerably enhanced importance attached to the recording studio, its wizardry and gadgetry. It became acknowledged as a complete musical instrument in its own right. The role of the producer and the engineer - those who operated the gadgetry - became very important. Sergeant Pepper was a landmark album in this respect. You only have to listen to the first album The Rolling Stones released, post-Pepper, to realise the implications. They were supposed to have a 'grittier' and more 'street-cred' image. But compare their post-Pepper production style with their earlier work. Rock music was now judged by different standards on all levels. Record companies and A&R men rejected things which didn't measure up to these new criteria. The power ratio between artist and record company shifted dramatically.
3. Because of the above, a band's 'sound' and 'image' became very important. The record companies acquired final say over an artist's material, production, and even sometimes appearance. On a musical level, the producer became the record company's representative, and was more important in their eyes than the writer/musician. Ask any new band who have got a contract. Final say over the sound and the mix is always with the producer and the company. So forget about artistic control. It just won't happen. If they want to remix your music, they will. (None of this denies, of course, that there are extremely creative producers around who can really draw out a band's music in ways they might not have thought of. This does not, though, deny where the ultimate veto generally lies).
One thing it is vital to remember about The Beatles, in this context, is that they not only wrote the songs, but they were also the ones who experimented with them, and were also responsible for the final sound. Examine today's Top 100 and see how many musicians have this kind of artistic control. A few superstars in the Paul Simon/David Bowie league and that's it.
4. The sheer expense of the studio and equipment required to achieve the kinds of sounds and textures desired also added to the growth in influence of record companies. We are not talking affordable digital reverb or other such in this period. Record companies either paid for or owned all the expensive equipment and called the shots.
5. Back in the early/mid-60s, pressing records was almost a cottage industry. Practically every major city had a pressing plant nearby. This meant that enterprising bands and their managers could cut a record at very little cost, and start selling locally. It did not cost much to do. They could afford to put their beliefs into it, and were prepared to take artistic and monetary risks on these beliefs and their integrity. They went for a few local sales and if enough excitement was generated, this grew into national sales. But the industry at this time was also steadily expanding. For reasons of cost-effectiveness, the major companies like EMI gradually bought up most of the plants. They were amalgamated, and those not deliberately closed down were forced out of business. Nowadays, there are only one or two plants outside London, and less than 20 nationwide.
The most important consequence of all these different tendencies was that:
- A few record companies came to dominate the music scene.
- As record companies grew, so they became more impersonal and the profit criterion became paramount.
- They went for 'sound' and 'image'.
- The excitement, creativity and experimentation that the constant upsurge - and search for - new bands wrought was snuffed out.
Through the '70s and '80s the technology of studio equipment and musical instruments advanced out of all proportion. The consequences have been two-fold. Firstly, there are now incredible machines like Synclaviers and Fairlights creating sonic opportunities undreamt of earlier. Secondly, however, ground-level instruments have also appeared with - admittedly - nowhere near that level of sophistication, but which nevertheless offer extremely acceptable, usable and affordable professional sound quality. You and I can now afford to buy home recording equipment superior to that which our early rock 'n' roll forbears used as top-flight professional equipment. Paul Simon's synthesized strings, so effectively used on 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', were at the time way beyond the reach of most musicians. Now, they can be had for a couple of hundred pounds. Many of the studio effects that were so complicated to achieve ten - even five - years ago can now come at the touch of a button.
Modern music has gradually returned to a position similar to that of the '60s. Artists and bands with enough faith can once again emulate their predecessors and get their music out onto the streets. The only other alternative is to give up, crawl slowly into a hole and die.
Record companies all have similar structures and act in similar ways. They are all, first and foremost, businesses. Selling records is a completely different thing from making the music that goes on them. WEA have recently signed Errol Brown and the Bhundu Boys. Virgin have acquired Steve Winwood and Robert Palmer. Face it - what chance do you seriously have against this kind of competition? And there is a lot of it around. Artists are always busy changing labels, splitting up, regrouping etc. If a record company can sign an established act, which involves them in little or no financial risk, it will. The bottom line is that as an industry, the music biz has an extremely average rate of return. It is only the very few mega-sellers that make it viable. These are, therefore, what everybody wants.
In the light of my thoughts and research, I gradually concluded that (apart from giving up) setting up a new record label was not only my sole remaining option, but also that it was not as crazy or impossible an idea as it might seem. I was lucky enough to have had a little bit of business experience, so expressions like 'double-entry bookkeeping', 'variable overheads ratio' and 'margin on costs' did not throw me into a blind panic. (Quite a good little book is 'Accounting For Small Businesses' by Jack Hellings - a Business Guide book. If you aren't prepared to make at least some effort to work through it and make sense of it, then just give up on the idea of doing something similar.)
Unless you are very, very rich, money will have to be borrowed. If it is intended for something as totally lunatic as financing a record company, then you stand no chance of getting a bank loan unless you can be totally convincing and come up with a proper business plan, budgets, and an overall strategy. The same rules apply. If you are running a successful business people will queue up to give you as much money as you want. (Try saying 'Hello, my name is Richard Branson'). If you are setting one up, you have zero credibility. Not surprisingly, the words 'music biz' are a right turn-off to the average bank manager. It took me months to talk mine round.
Once you have obtained financing, there are still a lot of legal and other procedures and moves to consider. There is an awful, awful lot of organisation involved in setting out the basic shell. Nevertheless, undaunted, I struggled slowly and patiently, taking one step at a time. Eventually, I managed to get everything together. I found a small office (read 'dingy little room'), shoved a couple of people into it, and was able to get my fledgling record company on the road.
So, you go out, record and make yourself a master tape. You will still have to edit it. Then you have to organise a mastering session and research into what is involved in getting acetates and lacquers, etc, made. Writing lyrics, working out arrangements, and programming synths gets to seem like child's play, believe me!
If you get as far as being able to plan out the manufacturing of your record, you then have to organise sleeve artwork, typesetting, printing, invoicing, letterheads and so forth. All of this takes time, energy and patience. You have got to approach it properly. This is a very competitive business, and you have to look totally professional and clued-up.
If you have survived so far, then you get to the next stage. When manufacturing is under way a whole set of new problems begin. Have you ever tried persuading a record shop to stock an unknown artist on an unknown label?! Even on a sale-or-return basis, it's a right headache. Same rules apply. The larger retail chains won't stock anything unless (a) it, or the artist, is on a viable label or comes through a creditable distributor they already deal with (although some are more imaginative than others) and (b) they can see that the record is already charting. This only leaves a few thousand small independent shops nationwide to talk round! Arranging a distribution network is a hard and depressing industry in itself.
Then the record is finished and ready, and you have a beautiful piece of shiny black plastic in your hand. So what?! Record companies employ whole departments whose entire living is to do nothing else but get reviews, get radio plays, fix up interviews, and generally get their hot artists seen and heard in all the right places. What is the point in having the world's best album ever on vinyl in your garage if nobody has ever heard of it? And again, the same rules apply. Nobody will show the slightest interest without a hit or some credibility. And without coverage, you won't get much of either. Press agents and professional radio pluggers really do earn their money and are not employed for their looks. They have years of experience and big fat contacts books. You may not like the way the system works, but there is no point in ignoring it. This kind of competition is not to be lightly taken on. Be realistic - what you are up against is the fact that there are over 4,000 releases each year. Every one of them dreams of being a winner. And every week there is only one Top 10.
I have tried to be totally realistic, to sketch out the odds, but enough of this gloom and depression. I hope that you have followed me this far over the last three months. The time has come to draw to a close and to sketch out the two conclusions mentioned in the opening paragraph.
As the review quotes suggest, it was not the music I was making that accounted for my total lack of progress. My first conclusion is this: if you are totally dedicated, totally committed, and really prepared to work hard, there is no reason at all - given today's technology - why you should not be able to get your music out on the streets. Changes only happen when enough people make them happen.
I am totally convinced that there are hundreds of creative people out there all being denied a good chance of a fair break. I cannot believe that the present record charts are truly representative of the talent which currently exists in the UK. The thought is just too depressing. The 20 or 30 A&R men in those four or five huge corporations do not have God-given infallibility in deciding what is and is not music, what is or is not creative, and what will or will not sell. Don't forget that The Beatles were turned down by everybody until Brian Epstein got behind them and they tried EMI. When John Hammond signed Bob Dylan to CBS Records, everyone there thought he had gone mad. After his first album flopped the pressure was on to dump him. John Hammond refused and hung on. The rest is history.
My second conclusion is this. On the whole, I would not glibly recommend people to do what I did. You have to be willing to lose your shirt, and also need to do a lot of background research and have your wits about you. However, I cannot deny the following:
1. It is enormously satisfying to know that there are now several thousands of people who have had a chance to hear my music who would never have done so otherwise.
2. The reviews gained, the sales made, and general reactions to the music have served to totally vindicate the sacrifices and pain.
3. I am now fortunate enough to own what is beginning to look like a thriving independent record label with definite prospects (my label is now negotiating to put out another act and I personally am working on my follow-up album).
I agree that I have not (yet) made the Top 10. But I have gained a lot of personal pleasure and fulfillment, and I have still sold a hell of a lot more than nothing, which was the only other alternative. Anyway, the future is yet to come. U2, after all, didn't exactly shake the world with their first couple of releases either, did they?!
To finish - it is my personal conviction that both the music industry and the music in it are soon to undergo a period of great creativity, change and excitement. Why not be part of it?
The end product of Kofi Busia's efforts is an enthralling album entitled 'Oh Africa', released by African Records International ((Contact Details)) and distributed by EMI/JetStar. (Contact Details).
Feature by Kofi Busia
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