Dread at the Controls
Who keeps it when you sign your deal? You, or the record companies? Does it matter anyway? Keith Grant sounds out opinion from both sides of the Biz
Bands write the songs — but record companies write the contracts. So who's really in control of a band's career?
Everybody knows the lengths that a band might have to go to to land a recording contract these days. But far from being the answer to their prayers it is often the beginning of a long uphill struggle. The thin line between music and marketing, art and commerce can be a nightmare of wrangle and confusion in which the humble performer can watch his career disappear without trace.
"The only compromises we've had to make are in terms of our music," explains Lesley Beach, saxophonist with Amazulu.
The people who they have had to make the compromises for are their record company.
"The only compromises we've made are in terms of our music"
Amazulu spent a lot of time playing gigs across the country, supporting bands like The Clash, establishing their credibility and developing their own songwriting. This led to a publishing deal with ATV Music. So far, however, only one of their songs has been released as a single: the rest have all been covers.
"Our first single for Island Records was Midnight Romance, which was written by us and produced by Gerry Dammers. But it didn't turn out the way we expected it to and Island wouldn't let us go back and do it again. They went ahead and released it but didn't promote it."
Island blamed the failure of the single on the band's song and brought in producer Chris Neal to steer their career and select future releases.
"They said what you need is something that is automatically going to grab the buying public."
The band continue to release their own songs and have even started to produce themselves, but only on the B-sides of their singles. So are they happy with this arrangement?
"What we would like is for our B sides to be the A sides," says Sharon, their percussion player. "But when you've signed a contract you just can't turn round and say 'we're doing this or we're not doing that'. They'd just leave you on the shelf."
A band may find themselves with little control as the record company moves in with its team of experts and wealth of market experience. Equally they may find themselves subject to almost total neglect from these people; the victims of prevailing political whim.
The Armoury Show, arisen from the ashes of Magazine and The Skids, received their best offer from EMI America.
"We were already signed to an American management company," explains Russell Webb," and the A&R people were really keen to sign an English band and break them over there from the outset."
Distribution of their records in this country was to be through Parlophone (part of EMI in Britain and here the trouble began.
"Parlophone obviously resented having to promote a band from this country who they hadn't been interested in signing themselves"
The Armoury Show
"Parlophone obviously resented having to promote a band from this country who they hadn't been interested in signing themselves. They thought we had been dumped on them."
Another blow came when the people in EMI America who had signed the band left the company. And all this before the first album was even released.
"We were literally dropped onto someone's desk. They probably didn't even know who we were. They hadn't been involved in putting the album together and weren't interested in its success."
The result was an album which cost over £150,000 to record being released without any promotion whatsoever.
No promotion also meant no finance for tours and more money coming out of the group's own pockets. However, there may yet be hope. Even if John McGeogh has left to make more money as guitarist for Public Image the band are determined to pull through. Set to name a replacement, they are also attempting to salvage their contract and are waiting for the go-ahead to record a new album.
"The new people at EMI seem to be behind us this time. It's no longer somebody else's project. They're taking a much greater interest and a lot more control."
What is there that a band can do to maintain their artistic intentions and avoid getting lost in the record company machine? One answer might be to to sign to a smaller record label.
Then Jerico are among the up and coming, and great things are expected of them. Not least of all by London Records, who signed them up a year and a half ago.
Having successfully promoted themselves playing the club circuit — including some appearances in New York — they found themselves pursued by several companies, contracts and cheque books in hand. Singer Mark Shaw and bass player Jasper Sainethorpe explain why they chose the smallest...
"We picked London because of their commitment. Everybody from the company came to the gigs. You'd come in the next day for a meeting and see the entire front row from the night before."
"We picked London Records because of their commitment. Everybody from the company came to the gigs"
So was it a decision about people rather than about money?
"Definitely. I mean, London offered us a lot of money but not as much as, say, Virgin or Chrysalis".
"It felt more like joining a family than signing to a record label" adds Jasper.
London have only been around for four years but have already had remarkable success, most notably with Bronski Beat and Fine Young Cannibals. Although part of the PolyGram corporation they operate as an independent label.
The band has had disagreements with the label most recently about their liking for expensive artwork on their singles — but nothing that has soured the relationship.
"The bands always get their own way in this company"
"They'll explain that they're trying to sell your records and that you are making it harder on yourselves by insisting on doing all these really artistic things."
On some points the band have stood their ground, especially when London did not want to release the first single they recorded. Then Jerico threatened to go ahead and release it themselves.
"They realised how important it was to us. So they put out about a thousand copies. They were just keeping us happy but most companies wouldn't have entertained the idea".
Then Jerico see it as an essential part of what they do to work closely with everyone involved in releasing their records. They are sure that with some companies this would be regarded as interfering.
"You would probably be told 'what do you know. I've been doing this for ten years'."
Tracy Bennet, A&R manager and, along with Roger Aimes, co-founder of London is proud of their style and the relationship that they have with the bands they sign.
"Roger and I started the company to combat the major labels who had done a very good job of stamping out the independents. I think that we are the best label in the industry. CBS might sign up 15 album bands in a year and break one of them. I think that's pathetic. The bands always get their own way in this company. I'm not interested in working with people who do not have a good idea of their own direction."
London Records may operate as an independent but are still in direct competition with the major labels. Not everyone, however, is so concerned with success in the market place. Success for some record labels is about making enough money from one record to pay for the next.
4AD records is associated with bands like the Cocteau Twins and Colourbox. They are a label known not only for the quality of their records but also in the way in which they are packaged. With little or no expenditure on the promotional gimmickery employed by the mainstream of the industry, their records come in sleeves as distinctive as the music itself.
"The major companies spend so much money throwing around T-shirts and free gifts"
Ivo Watts-Russell began it all with a clutch of demo tapes and £2000 borrowed from Beggars Banquet.
"I was working for Beggars and hearing all these demo tapes they were receiving but were too busy to do anything with. I kept saying you should listen to this one. They eventually said why don't you start something yourself. So literally within 24 hours they set up the finance and we had the label."
From an initial release of four singles the label grew to the point where today sales are often in the 'respectable' category. Ivo does not, however, see himself becoming involved in the type of sales pitch employed by the large companies.
"Even if we could afford it, the sort of bands we are involved with wouldn't want it. The major companies spend so much money throwing around T-shirts and free gifts. It's like the music itself is just not enough. Even with a single as commercial as The Moon Is Blue (released off the Colourbox LP) we couldn't get any radio play. If it wasn't for John Peel our records wouldn't be heard on the radio. All that we can offer people is an outlet for their music."
Promotion is mostly through the bands's own live appearances. Ivo admits that this is increasingly difficult as the number of venues across the country continues to fall. Some of the groups who work with him are under contract, only where it makes life easier and is mutually desired, as with the Cocteau Twins. Many of the releases are one-offs; until it is decided to make another record.
The future for most bands, however, increasingly depends on their amount of chart success, and therefore that element of hype, marketing and promotion that is now required for that success. How long this dubious situation will continue is anyone's guess. With Radio One 'unofficially' reverting to a 25 song playlist the casualty rate can only increase.
What is decidedly criminal is that the music and the musicians should be so irrelevant.
Feature by Keith Grant
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