workings of the press part two; dealing with music papers
How to make the Music Press like you. John Monish puts on the cape of good hope in the telephone box of publicity. Or something.
Asking musicians what they think of the music press is a dangerous business. Reactions tend to be extreme.
Some people get very hurt: "How could they misunderstand me so. When I said that national service would be a good thing I was only being ironical!"
Others get angry at being misunderstood: "NME said we are a heavy metal band, when really we're a high energy hard rock combo with an active interest in leather goods."
Less negligible are those who have found themselves on the wrong side of a drubbing for the crime of becoming unfashionable. Sentenced to be ridiculed until dead — or retired — they take refuge in accusations of ignorance or malice.
And then there are those who, giving it a status it barely deserves, blame the music press for the dreary nature of this year's music. Better to blame the video industry or The Tube or the lack of a vinyl crisis.
One musician, formerly with a highly successful and in its day innovative band, told me the other week that he will be launching his new band in Germany or Holland or France or Japan or just about anywhere — simply to avoid being tripped at the first hurdle by the music paper contingent.
This seems a slight over-reaction. But it has to be said, the music press does not lend itself to rational examination. So much vitriol, all dressed up with nowhere to go.
So here's a brief look at the nature of the phenomenon, with the avowed intention of allowing you, the creative artist, to Know Your Enemy (NME?).
The music press we see today is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Oh yes, I know that Melody Maker is a venerable institution dating from the Jazz Age, but in their present form, and with their present obsessions, the pop papers are no more than about 20-years-old at the outside.
The whole business of the "big" interview or "serious" review owes a great deal to the American "new journalists" of the mid-60s, whose innovations were adopted by publications such as Rolling Stone. What started as an admirable attempt to match style to content, in, for instance, the drug-crazed ramblings of a Hunter S Thompson, degenerated into a form in which the author takes his or her own self as the subject matter.
So the critics (because that was how they saw themselves) found it easier to write about their own reactions to records than to write about the records themselves. And how could it be any different, given the lack of a descriptive language even for musicians to talk to one another? And even if they could describe what they hear, how could they say whether it was any good or not? To judge one piece of music either against another or in absolute terms... well, where do you start?
Of course, it's easy enough to say, "I know what I like and I don't like this," but stretched over, say 2000 words it looks a little dull. Even if your second name is Burchill.
Besides, most of the writers of the Golden Era of rock journalism (say from Sgt Pepper's to the present day) have thought of themselves as having something more to say than just anyone you might meet in a pub.
They have taken various approaches to give themselves a degree of intellectual credibility or coherence. There's the "literary-critical" approach, dominant in America, exemplified by Greil Marcus of Rolling Stone fame, and easily identified by its obsession with lyrics to the exclusion of everything else. It's as if the streets of mid-seventies America were awash with English Majors who got tired of Jane Austen and decided to get funky instead.
I'd like to say that there are people who have tried to write analytically about music, but there aren't. The standard way of by-passing that problem is to make (again subjective) comparisons. For instance, "This band is like a cross between Talking Heads and The Smurfs," or "his guitar solo was like an explosion in a plate glass factory" (yuk).
Then there are those who take a sociological line.
For them, every band is part of a trend, or a youth cult, or a cultural phenomenon or a historical moment. Do not be surprised if they find your trousers as interesting as your music.
As a sideline, these writers may examine your ideology in some depth. You can spot them by phrases such as, "The Singing Pubes represent a frenzied under-class hitting back at the grinding realities of Thatcherite Britain." Don't expect many jokes from this little Gang.
Less praiseworthy (still) are those who aim to use their journalism to bolster private commercial aims. For instance, your local music-paper correspondent may turn out to be the mini-Trevor Horn behind your local small label. He or she may even play in a band. Should such information come to your ears, a word in the right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) place can do wonders. It's a fact of life, though, that the music papers depend on these part-timers, and none of them are getting rich. So, given the grinding realities of Thatcherite Britain, maybe you should not be too hard on them.
To me, the most honest type of rock journalist is the one who ponders and probes and pontificates without the dubious benefit of an intellectual framework, trying always to detect noble (and subjective) qualities such as "sincerity" or "passion" or "deeply-felt personal emotion". Not easy when you are dealing with a constant diet of Wham! or Frankie Goes To The National Westminster.
One hazard of this school is the writer's determined self-identification with the subject, usually a sincere and passionate songwriter in the Costello, Springsteen or Armatrading mould. Isn't it a tragedy that these great artists aren't recognised, runs the lament? Isn't it a tragedy that we sincere and passionate writers who choose to cover these unrecognised artists are left unrecognised, runs the unspoken corollary.
The trouble is, most rock journalists like to think of themselves as, at the least, journalists, and at the best, sensitive artists whose chosen instruments are the Pental Rollerball and the Olympia manual typewriter. They don't see themselves as they really are, an essential part of the process of record marketing. So they subscribe to the reporter's ethos, that "news is something someone else does not want you to know", and take an unhealthy (for their subjects) interest in dissent, splits and controversy.
They want to be Woodward & Bernstein, but they are more like Saatchi and Saatchi. No wonder they succumb to that terrible bitterness, cynicism and despair that is so depressing to read. They bite the record companies and their product, not because the record companies represent the hand that feeds them. No, the truth is the journalists are the ones doing the feeding, and they like it not one bit.
Phil Oakey once told me (OK, I admit it, it was the only time I met him — and before he was a megastar) that he was very worried about the NME's Paul Morley. "He's a nice bloke," he said, or words to that effect, "but he seems to have gone very strange." We agreed that Mr Morley had been taking it all too seriously, judging by the wristslitting tone of some of his regular three-page NME confessionals. Still, he's fine now. He's salved his conscience by running his own record company and selling the same song to the same people over and over again. O Tempora, O Mores, whatever that means.
OK, that's the writers dealt with. The question is, how can you, the sensitive artist, go about getting the best possible press for yourself?
First a disclaimer: the whole world of music journalism is so utterly irrational that you must expect even your best efforts to go awry, your skilfully posed photographs to be ridiculed, and your deeply-held beliefs to look foolish in cold print. In this game, a thick skin is invaluable.
In the first instance, your band will probably appear in the Gig Guide or equivalent. If you string together half-a-dozen gigs in a short period, it might be worth sending in a press release and a photograph. If you've got an own-label or small-label single coming out then it's certainly worth doing. But don't send the same stuff you used for the local paper (see last month): the NME won't want to know where you went to school or what your day-job is. For the photo, imagine you were making a video of your single and ask yourself how you'd illustrate it — in the most basic terms, as a sort of charade.
If you are pleased with your record — and let's hope you are — then send it in for review. Don't be surprised if it never makes it. Only a tiny proportion of the vinyl flooding in to music papers ever reaches the turntable. The rest is informally recycled into frisbees, ashtrays and so on.
Of course, when they do get round to reviewing your record there is every likelihood that they will pan it. It's more or less a statistical certainty. How many records get through unscathed, after all?
This may seem very unfair. You've put a lot of effort, time and no doubt money into that little piece of plastic, and now a bunch of complete strangers come along, pour scorn over your efforts, and probably ensure you'll be out of pocket at the end of the day. It's a sobering moment, but it's worth asking yourselves, have you really been as honest with yourselves as you should have been? All that praise you've picked up from family, friends, fans, record company types and all the rest was well-meaning, but look where it's left you. So think about the criticisms you get, think hard, but don't take them to heart. You can try again later.
Much the same goes for concert reviews where, once again, subjectivity is rampant. The pub where you are playing may sell your hack a warm pint of beer, and you'll get the resultant slagging through no fault of your own. Have another pint yourself, and forget it. Unless, of course, you recognise an element of truth in what has been said. Then it's up to you to correct the problems.
I once slagged off a band's first album on the grounds that it was wimpy, twee, and generally worthless. Then I met them, and found they agreed with me. Then they made two more albums which were even worse. So much for the power of the press.
The interview, of course, is fraught with problems. By the time you make the cover story of the NME you will no doubt have a contract with Virgin Records and a team of highly-paid managerial persons to help you polish your image. Good luck to you. But one thing any band can do is to be human. If you know who is coming to interview you, it wouldn't hurt to read a little of his or her work, just so you can say, "I enjoyed your piece about so-and-so," and have an inkling of what line the writer is likely to take. That's why I went through all that "Observer's Book Of The Music Press" business just now, to help you prepare yourself.
Beyond that, be yourselves, be pleasant and friendly, and don't go for all out to impress. Journalists are a cynical lot.
As a writer, I detest interviews in managers' offices, rehearsal rooms and dressing rooms. I like to meet people on their home ground, in the Scout Hut where they rehearse, at their local pub, with their friends. These things give the writer something to get to grips with, an atmosphere, a sense of place. So be amenable, offer the writer that modicum of assistance and it will be reflected, consciously or unconsciously, in the work that comes out.
Of course, some writers take an aggressive line in their questioning. Let them. Argue back. But don't get into a real argument, especially about politics, religion and all those other topics you are supposed to avoid at vicarage tea parties. By all means argue about them — but don't get into a row. Keep it friendly.
Don't, under any circumstances, profess any interest in, or enthusiasm for, the politics of the extreme right. Nazi chic is dead, and thank God for that. It took years for the music papers to forgive Paul Weller, and all he did was say he might vote for Margaret Thatcher.
After all your preparation, things may still go badly wrong. You may be misquoted (unlikely in the era of the tape machine) or your quotes may be "out of context". The image presented may be "wrong". You may not recognise yourselves.
That's tough. There's nothing much you can do. Your record company may pay large amounts into the paper's coffers, but it doesn't own it. If there's a factual error you can ask for a correction, providing it is serious enough. But everything else is what we journalists call "fair comment", and you just have to put up with it. Take it like a person.
It may be that you never become the darlings of the carbon paper set. Do not despair. More than one career has been built on unfashionability, or on pretending the music press didn't exist. You'll get by: keep your fans informed through the local press and local radio. Help them put a fanzine together.
Above all, don't take it too seriously. Remember what Pete Townshend said...
"Typewriter tappers, you're all just crappers..." Now he really has got a way with words.
Feature by John Morrish
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