As Seen On TV
Want to get on in the music biz? Then you'll have to get on TV. Mike Hrano shows you how
If you want to get on in the music business, you'll be looking at television to help. Here's how to get on.
"How the hell did that lot get on TV?" It's a thought which must surely have crossed the minds of most dedicated musicians at some point, as they've sat goggle-eyed and seething with frustration at the sheer fortune of some unworthy band on the box.
Precisely how they did get there is, of course, no easy question to answer but, simply, it boils down to this: someone, somewhere in television liked them. It's the straightforward acid test which separates the music that will be seen and heard from the music that won't.
Whether the viewer agrees with this behind-the-scenes judgement made on their behalf is crucial; it will determine whether the music on display will be witnessed – or traded in for a bout of something else on another channel. Ultimately, the punter is the real boss of the box; he or she has the sole option to either switch off, switch over or stay tuned.
For that basic reason the programmes screening music on TV have to be convinced that what's being shown won't be ignored. With the notable exception of the ever deteriorating Top Of The Pops – which has a playing policy dictated almost entirely by the shuffling around of the Top 40 – these programmes have, out of necessity, to tread carefully.
Music, alter all, only soaks up a minor proportion of TV's total entertainment scope – and even within these already limited confines, major, established acts will understandably be given preference.
Fortunately for new bands, the system isn't unbending. There are ways in, any number of them, but the trick is to find the right way – and, most importantly, the right time. Crack that little equation and it could be instant bingo; mass exposure on Britain's major communicator can turn into a very nice earner.
So powerful a medium is TV that even not appearing on it has worked lucrative wonders for bands like Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. None of them did too badly by placing themselves – either deliberately or inadvertently – outside the range of the 17 million potential record buyers who regularly suffer Top Of The Pops.
London band The Escape Club had no more than a smattering of gigs to their credit when they plumped for a most cheeky plan of action to get noticed. "We invited The Tube down to see us," says singer Trevor Steel, "but didn't for a moment expect anyone to actually come.
"As it happened, someone did come – and we were asked to go on the programme. It was one of our first gigs. Obviously, we were very nervous about appearing and, beforehand, we'd all agreed that if anything really disastrous did occur then we'd just wreck our instruments or do something silly.
"But things went alright, apart from one guitar packing up for a few minutes – it seemed like 10! We were well aware that it was a big chance for us and that playing a duff gig on TV could have been the end of our career before it had even started. We got on The Tube without a record deal but luckily managed to get one through the programme."
Now signed to EMI, The Escape Club's debut single Rescue Me dented the lower regions of the chart last year and also won them a slot more recently on BBC 2's No Limits.
That's exactly the kind of helping hand John Gwyn-Jones likes to be able to provide. As producer of The Tube – undoubtedly Britain's most influential music programme – he's well aware of the crying need to cater for the hopes and aspirations of our newer bands. Proof of The Tube's track record in this respect is matchless; Prefab Sprout, Go West, Paul Young, Fine Young Cannibals... the list goes on. Even more familiar acts like Tina Turner and U2 have benefitted greatly through inclusion on the show.
So what does he look for in bands?
"Basically, they've got to be distinctive. We're looking for something that's totally different. There are a hell of a lot of good bands who play good music, but we'll only be able to feature them for one number – so we're searching for excellent material.
"I am more interested in unsigned rather than signed bands – not least because they've got so much energy and a wealth of material that they've been busily accumulating oversome time.
"Because the bands aren't known there is no immediate audience interest in them, so what they've got to have in order to hold that interest is a strong enough song and sufficient charisma.
"People might sit through one duff number from a famous band – because they like them anyway – but they won't put up with anything that isn't very good from someone new. You've really got to win people over immediately."
Like most other music programmes, The Tube has tried and tested ways of sniffing out new talent – the frontline of which is the vast amount of cassettes which are sent in every week. Added to this, bands can be checked out in the following main ways; through local radio and its DJs through the pop pages of local papers, via the national music press – and from bands on the road who often see new blood either supporting them or at gigs they go to.
"The more of these ways that a band comes to our attention, the more keen we are to go and see them for ourselves," Gwyn-Jones adds.
"What's most exciting, and what we react to most positively, is when we get, from lots of places, a 'buzz' about a city or a particular act."
Even so, The Tube also reacts to far more direct approaches on occasion, as acoustic guitar duo Jimmy Jimmy discovered.
"They just turned up, played in front of one of our team – and they were so good that we put them on; they fitted in," says Gwyn-Jones.
"We had another classic example with the band Secret People, who were on the show just before Christmas. They delivered a tape here just a fortnight before that programme and within that time the band had been filmed and were on the show.
"That's very unusual – because we do sometimes go on impulse, you see. If a tape is so good that we think 'Christ! – we've got to show that now' then we just put 'em on. So there's no straight formula; you just know sometimes that a certain band is right for a particular programme.
"At the end of the day, however, what gets a new band on the show – no matter how we hear of them – is a): good quality and b): the luck to be able to fit in with the right show."
Not unnaturally, The Tube favours working bands – people who perform often. Though it is very difficult to get noticed with all the competition, the more a band plays, the better chance it's got.
"You just tell people to carry on sending the music in – and we'll sort it out. Absolutely," Gwyn-Jones insists. "My job is to put together a well-balanced programme that will include bigger names, because that's the only reason a lot of people watch the show anyway.
"But it's also The Tube's job to seek out new bands. We don't care what's hip or fashionable, or being hyped. We only want what's good – whatever type of music is being played.
"We are there to show people things that they wouldn't have seen anywhere else; the best from every area of music and entertainment. And, ultimately, the choices aren't that difficult to make; the good things will always leap out at you."
On No Limits recently, John Parr handed over a silver disc to the show's two presenters in recognition of services rendered by the programme in helping to break his hit St Elmo's Fire in Britain. There it was for all to see; a debt of gratitude paid to TV by the performer.
No limits producer Peter Hamilton is realistic about the situation facing new bands who would love to be able to repeat Parr's gesture.
"I could say 'Yes – we send out our researchers all the time to look for new talent', but come on!, there's no way; how many venues and bands are there in the country?
"You have to do things by listening to and taking notice of the stuff that people send you – you can't be everywhere all the time. Added to that, you need good researchers – like you need good A&R men – who can go to a gig and completely ignore the atmosphere that's being created, strip it all away and say 'Yes – but does it still work?' That's what television does; it reveals a band for what it really is, warts and all.
"Certainly, there's room for new bands on our programme but the problem is – and all of them know it – having the experience and charisma to make yourself instantly successful on TV when you haven't had much chance.
"Maybe the band hasn't got a lot of money and its equipment isn't really up to it. So it's very rare that an unknown band using TV as a first step gets straight across – in fact, I can't think of too many examples. They would need to have something very visually exciting about them to carry it off."
Having been in on the launch of the Oxford Road Show six years ago, Hamilton is no stranger to music on TV. He has this to say to bands keen to step out into the medium: "What can they do? Well, it's an awful thing to say – because they'll already have bothered the bank manager for enough money to get their equipment together, I'll bet you – but I think sending something visual in is sensible.
"Make a video of some sort, it doesn't matter how rough. Borrow a mate's camera and recorder if you can – that would be quite good enough. It certainly doesn't have to be professional; we're all very good at judging white labels for sound, and badly mixed cassettes, and so on.
"But you can't really get an idea of the visual impact a band might have – which is obviously very important for telly – unless you can either get along to watch them, or they can provide you with some sort of visuals. There's probably aspects about the band that they wouldn't even notice themselves, so the fairest, easiest thing to do with a video is to shoot them head-on in performance.
"They're probably going to send in something that we can listen to as well – but it's a question of 'Do they have something about them?' A video is all I can really suggest – and I realise that it just adds again to the financial burden of getting yourself noticed."
Though he admits that, for new bands at least, getting into TV is tough, Hamilton does believe that persistence can often be rewarded.
"I suppose the main thing, and everyone will have told you this, is that they should keep at it. Just because you're not noticed the first time you send something in you think is good, don't give up. It could just bean accident of timing – it could be anything. More importantly, it's probably just that the time wasn't right."
Expanding the theory he adds: "I don't care who the band is or what they play – but it has to pass the old test first; it has to be a good listen or a good watch. If it's either of those two things, then it's in with a chance just the same as anyone else."
Wham!, Nik Kershaw, King, A-Ha, Howard Jones... just some of the more notable names who've gained valuable public support very early on in their careers courtesy of BBC 1's Saturday Superstore. Yet the programme is quite distinct from others showing music on TV; it's audience is children, and their tastes are fairly uniform – as the above lineup suggests.
At the end of the show's last series, a consumer survey was carried out to identify what the Superstore viewers loved or loathed.
"We asked the children to say three things they liked and one they didn't," Cathy Gilbey, a producer on the programme, explained.
"One of the things they did say quite strongly was 'We don't like groups we don't know.' They're not terribly interested in the fact that we might have shown a particular band first; they like what they know, they like their favourites.
"I know that this is quite hard on new new bands, but the age group of our audience isn't necessarily interested in, say, hearing an interview with a band that's not known. They'd much rather have Wham!, Duran Duran or the ones that they do know."
So the place for musical discovery on television would appear to be elsewhere.
"I think so – with one or two exceptions," she adds. Sometimes I go and see a group or an artist and I think 'Well, they're so smashing that I really don't care if the audience knows them or not.' I think that the audience will be entertained by them and they're worth putting on.
"That happened with Howard Jones, who I went to see at The Marquee. The thing that struck me about him was the most incredible following that he had built up. He'd obviously put in the hours. More than that, I found him interesting and entertaining; I just thought he was a star. I felt the same way about Wham! when we first saw them – but we had to think long and hard about that band. There were quite a lot of them, so they were quite expensive to put on the show."
Despite the obvious restrictions governing the appearance of new bands on Superstore, Cathy stresses that the programme does have open eyes and ears nonetheless.
"Everybody in the office, if they see something they like, will mention it. But we do have to choose very, very carefully before putting on a new group. If a group has a video, then obviously that is a help.
"But ours is not the right programme, really – I'm not sure what is. Probably The Tube. We've got to listen to what our audience says. We can make the odd exception – but it is the odd exception. Where we have made those, however, then on the whole the bands we've featured have all gone on to do very well."
Time was when 'whispering' Bob Harris and The Old Grey Whistle Test was just about the only musical salvation on TV, and many acts went onto fame and fortune on the programme's back.
The tradition of covering new ground musically continues in The Whistle Test, editor Mike Appleton insists.
"Certainly, one of our aims is to introduce new music," he explains. "But it's not just about that; if it was then you'd only have a really small audience watching you.
"People like familiarity, so you have to put in a percentage of that, as well. It also makes the programme more entertaining – otherwise it would become like the John Peel Show, which is OK, but it's definitely for afficionados only. One tries to mix the two, even for the sake of the new bands; they'll have more chance of being noticed if they're in amongst some of the bigger boys in the league.
"Our policy has always been to uncover lesser-known bands – and hopefully always will be. Everybody can put on the same old bands all the time, but that gets exceedingly boring."
The Whistle Test relies on precisely the same techniques as every other music show to find its unexposed acts. "But nobody puts on a band unless they think it's worth it. If you do that too often, then you don't have a programme. Also there are so many bands out there – every other kid seems to be in one – that even those with record contracts find it hard to get on TV, let alone those without them.
"So it is difficult for unknown bands to get on – but not impossible; it has happened.
"I would think it's very frustrating for a lot of them because there are many bands out there playing good music, I'm sure. But they don't get a chance to get heard."
In common with many people in TV, Appleton believes that the only way of giving some kind of blanket coverage to music would be the foundation of an MTV-type channel in Britain. Until such time as that happens, then music will remain just one more of the many elements that go into making television and providing – that word again – 'entertainment.'
"The problem is," he continues, "that, for the amount of young bands trying to do things, there aren't enough outlets on television. Rock music is limited on TV because it doesn't pull high viewing figures – and viewing figures are what it all boils down to."
Even so, Appleton positively encourages bands to make a play for the outlets that are available.
"I shouldn't say this because it will cause me trouble, but pester people. Make it worthwhile somebody listening to and considering what you do – if only to get you, being the band, off that person's back. That's how I got into TV; by being a pain in the arse.
"But, having said that, if once a producer has given you the thumbs down, then the chances are that you must pursue it elsewhere. If a band is really good, then it will win through regardless. I'll tell you what is the best advice, and it's something no band can legislate for, but it's be in the right place at the right time.
"Other than that, the answer I fear is that it's a sticky old world out there. It's like fishing; you can dangle yourself around on the end of a rod, but the chances of catching the fish is... who knows what?"
There it is: so next time you cringe through a naff TV performance by a dodgy band you'll have no excuse to sit there and wonder 'Why isn't it me up there?'
Feature by Mike Hrano
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