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Box Pop

trying to get on telly could be the most frustrating experience of your musical career; we pinpoint the pitfalls

Appearing on TV could make the difference between success and failure for your music. But getting on the box is no easier now than it ever was, and things may get worse before they get better.

POP STARS, SOMEONE ONCE SAID, are the film stars of today - the new matinee idols. In 1989, bedroom walls are more likely to carry posters of Bros than Bogart. And with the advent of the promotional video, pop music and television seem made for each other. Or are they? TV ratings show that pop shows do not pull huge audiences, and the videos often appear as fillers between the main events.

Don't let that discourage you, though. Because as a tool for digging up fame and fortune, TV is the tops. Once you've been on 'Top Of The Pops' you are a celebrity, a star. If you are on TV you are respectable - it glamourises in a way radio never can. It also sells records, which is what you want it to do. So how do you get your faces onto TV?

Peter Fowler and Brenda Kelly are the producers of 'Snub TV', one of the newest and most relevant of television pop shows for young bands. The difference with 'Snub' is that it concentrates on "independent" bands, with the odd major signing thrown in, (though these tend to be bands like The Fall and the Jesus & Mary Chain, both of whom were until recently on indie labels). The show boasts a wide variety of music and the producers will consider most things, though they admit the content is a matter of taste.

"The bottom line is whether we like it, really", admits Peter. "Obviously, if we get sent a VHS tape or record we watch it or play it. Sometimes we know the bands - if it's their fifth or sixth record, or we've seen them live - but if it's a brand new thing from a band you've never seen or heard of, you just sometimes get this feeling that this is a good band and you want to put it on."

Because many of the bands featured on 'Snub' are on small labels that may not have the resources to make their own videos, the producers have come up with a form of part-assistance - music programmes are invariably shoestring operations, more of which later - to suit both parties...

"What we have done in some cases", says Peter, "is that where a group has sent us a record or tape that we've really liked and they have got a record label, we'll say to them: 'make a video and we'll almost definitely show it.' Then the record company say: 'well, we can't afford to make a video but we can help towards your costs making a video for it.' So we do that and give them back the video to use after we've shown it. But we only do that when we really want to feature that group. It's not a question of record company payola. It's really us chasing them, saying: 'we really want this band, they haven't got a video, give us very basic costs and we'll shoot one'."

'Snub' has even made promos for people from scratch, an extreme example being that of ex-Microdisney singer Cathal Coughlan. He came to them with no record deal and a four-track demo. 'Snub' gave him the money to remix, and then shot a video to accompany it. But, as Brenda notes, "it's almost impossible for us to do that, and if we were being sensible in terms of our budget we wouldn't do it, because it nearly tipped us over into the sort of red that would have finished the series."

Which brings us back to the question of money - and there really is no getting away from it. If you've ever flipped through the TV guides and wondered where all the music went, money (in addition to small audiences) is the answer.

Apart from 'Top Of The Pops' and 'The Chart Show', music programmes do not pick up big ratings. A reasonable audience for a pop show is a million viewers, which sounds like a lot of people. But put against 12m 'Neighbours' fans, 17m 'Coronation Street' viewers and the 14m picked up by a quiz show such as '3-2-1', pop is small fry indeed. What does count is cost. Music rarely, if ever, makes for cheap programming. Games shows do.

Tony Michaelides runs an independent production company with long experience of working in television. Over the years, he has seen quite a few music programmes wax and wane.

"The proven formula", he asserts, "is that of 'Top Of The Pops'. It's just that it has the most popular records, and that is what people want. You get an audience on Saturday morning telly because kids get up and watch various bits and pieces and take to the pops. So pop works on a Saturday morning. But 'Wired', for example, didn't really get an audience for the amount of money they spent. 'The Tube' went off the boil after its initial impact - from the first series when people watched it because it was chaotic and anarchic and so on. It soon got very tired and the ratings dwindled away towards the end. It didn't go out on the crest of a wave. And then there's various programmes that have popped up and not sustained it, like 'APB' - though that was an OK programme and did get a reasonable amount of punters watching it."

Concerns of this sort are reflected in the attitudes of the television companies. 'Snub TV' began life in 1987 as a series of programmes on one of the large American cable networks, where it proved very successful. However, getting the programme on the air in the UK was difficult, as Brenda Kelly recalls.

"We went to Channel Four in the first instance because we thought that was the obvious place to be interested in a show like 'Snub'. But the sort of nervousness with which commissioning editors approach music is quite astounding. They only remember the failures. They felt their personal credibility was on the line in commissioning anything new, and they were incredibly reluctant..."

And then there's the video levy to consider. In a similar way to radio (see Issue 1), there is no free lunch for TV companies wishing to use videos. Since 1986, Video Performance Ltd (an off-shoot of Public Performance Ltd) has collected payments for the screening of videos on behalf of the BPI (made up of the larger record companies). These fees vary, but as a BPI spokesman quipped, "it's certainly not cheap!" Examples are £75 for a clip of less than ten seconds (for example, a 'Chart Show' rundown), £300 for between 11 and 45 seconds, and £700-750 for the full video. The reason for this, according to the BPI Handbook, is that they make "good programme material". Fair enough, but don't they also sell large numbers of records?

"It doesn't increase the market for records at all, it diminishes it", claim the BPI. "The reason why the record companies want them on is to increase their share of a finite market." Again, fair enough. But therein lies the real problem for young, upcoming musicians. Big-league artists like Michael Jackson or Dire Straits scarcely need the additional promotion video screenings give them. Yet no TV pop slot could survive without such acts, so what little budget does exist for video transmission mostly goes to them - leaving precious little for the struggling unknowns.

Another aspect of the pop, video and money equation is the Musicians' Union agreement, which guarantees a payment for each band member appearing on television - even if they are only miming with their instruments. This doesn't sound like any big deal, but it might well influence the TV company's decision between your nine-piece lineup and the four lads in Studio 2.

Considerations like those mentioned above really count when a TV programme is not specifically pop, and the music content is there simply to break up other items. A good example is a magazine programme like 'Daytime Live', whose format has led to some unusual versions of songs appearing on the box.

"It's the changing face of record promotion", says Tony Michaelides. "You can juggle things around to make them work. We've done a lot of things with Hue & Cry where we've had stripped down acoustic versions, just voice and piano, to promote a particular record. But then again, you've got to have the ability to do that. With a group like S'Express which is all technology, it's very difficult to go and do a live performance - it's all going to be backing tapes. And again, it's a fairly sizeable group. But they are a big enough name to get on TV because if they get in the Top 10, TV's forced to book them because they think more people will watch S'Express rather than a group on the way up."

As far as grabbing a share of the limelight goes, the glamour effect of the box still cannot be beaten. Peter Fowler of 'Snub' reflects on the aftermath of his weekly slot, where as well as radio stations, promoters, agencies and management... "We get phone calls from shopkeepers in Wigan or Glasgow or wherever, saying that the day after the show people are coming in saying: 'I want that band with the skinny singer with the cigarette and the white shirt; I can't remember what they're called but I want the record'."

And if it's mega-sales you're after, the show to be on is ITV's 'The Chart Show'. Tony Michaelides accounts for its success.

"From the record companies' point of view, television sells records, and the single most important contributory factor to the success of a record, excluding 'Top Of The Pops' which chooses itself, is 'The Chart Show'. It doesn't have any presenters, it's just video after video, and the only way you can get onto it is if the researchers like the video. It doesn't matter who you are: their vote for the best video of the year two years ago was New Order's 'True Faith', and yet they never used 'Touched By The Hand Of God' because they didn't like it.

"People try to make inroads into TV because they know they can break an act significantly. That's why even advertising records on TV is a major form of record company strategy, because you hit the audience you want to hit. You hope, if you've got a record on the Radio One playlist and get a certain amount of airplay, that would pre-empt a certain amount of sales, but not as much as if you get something on 'The Chart Show'. Nowadays 'The Chart Show' has record companies jumping up and down."

If 'The Chart Show' is a little too unpredictable for your taste, then satellite channels such as MTV Europe will soon be bringing you something even safer: the visual equivalent of a mainstream radio station, with DJ-style presenters, guests, and playlisted videos that are shown in rotation. In fairness, satellite's greater penetration on mainland Europe means that the stations' programmes do reflect a wide variety of European tastes and interests, and there is often something on that won't have come to the UK as yet. It's interesting to note that MTV Europe also has a 'Top Of The Pops'-style programme filmed in a New York nightclub, so there really is no escape from the BBC's magic formula.

To get on MTV Europe, you'll have to go through a familiar routine, and you'll need a video - although there have been instances of bands performing in the studio.

"Everyone's got a fair chance", says a spokesperson for the company. "Of course, tapes come in all the time, and once a week our programming department has a meeting where they watch all the tapes and discuss them, decide what should be played, and how often... There's an A to an E list, so things that go onto the A list will be high rotation, down to E which is maybe a couple of times a day."

MTV Europe also offers specialist shows and a programme made up of new releases. But whether satellite and cable channels will increase the amount of space available for music on TV, not to mention the number of opportunities for new bands, remains to be seen. The initial impression is that satellite stations will have to make their output as attractive to as many dish-buyers as possible - and to keep those dish-buyers happy, they may well resort to "bums on seats" programming. Back to the games shows again.

So the overall conclusion must be this. Don't get too worked up about TV. Edinburgh-based band Fini Tribe had their video screened on 'Snub' after being told by the makers of 'FSd' (a programme that concentrated on Scotland's indie scene) that they were unsuitable and would never get on the small screen. "Touch and go" doesn't begin to sum up the process.

"The best thing for a band to do is not to worry about TV", Brenda Kelly concedes, "and do what they are doing as best they can. And if someone really has their ear to the ground they'll find out about you. Obviously records should be sent to the TV companies, but you shouldn't expect to get someone on the phone."

Still, if you know a friend with a video camera it could make an interesting break from rehearsals. And a little lip-synching never did anyone any harm, did it?

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