Friday, August 14, 2009

The bluffer's guide to artist management (part 1)

I once thought I'd be a great band manager. Lacking in any real musical ability but having a deep love of music it seemed the obvious choice, a potential career path to run alongside my existing music journalism (which, frankly, has never paid). Then I tried it.

It was the mid to late 80's; the specific point in time has become slightly blurred by the passing of even more time. I was friendly with a number of bands in the general Birmingham area by virtue of hanging around in the wrong places, writing for local media, broadcasting for the BBC (locally) and promoting the odd gig on a random basis.

I had knowledge of music, media, marketing and publicity. I still have some of these skills, partly amplified by time and experience. Consequently I was invited by my friends in a band we should call Red Shoes (because that's their name) to help manage them.

Music managers of the time fell into three possible categories -

Close friends of the band who didn't mind cold-calling to get gigs and helping them to hump the gear around.

People with too much spare cash (but often not enough) who wanted to be in the music business, or to at least say they were.

Ex-musicians or recording studio workers, or people with existing 'successful' bands looking to expand their 'stable'.

None of the above was a reliable formula for success, but there seemed to be a glut of talent around and most of it went un-noticed. Sadly Birmingham was not considered 'cool' in music industry terms, certainly not on a level with Manchester or even Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield or Cardiff - all towns/cities that have been deemed to have a 'scene' at any point in the last thirty years.

Although the whole Stourbridge scene blew up in the period where I could've conceivably said 'I was there' and I knew a few bands that went on to great success there were a great many more that disappeared without trace. Were it not for recent developments you may have been able to say the same of Red Shoes.

That Red Shoes were accomplished musicians was a given, they wrote great songs and performed them well. The interplay between main vocalist Carolyn and guitarist/co-vocalist Mark was the core of the band and each was the perfect accompaniment to the other, personally and musically.

They slightly defied classification, something I should've played more on - albeit that this was a time when the best way to sell something was to compare it to something else. Right now we'd have termed it alt. folk/Americana but I don't think I'd even heard the term Americana at that time.

It was a period in time where r.e.m. were about to become mainstream but the vogue was for scuzzy indie guitars, shoegazing or electro-pop, Red Shoes weren't easily pigeon-holed and most labels didn't really know what they'd do with them. Perhaps my failings were in not being able to elucidate this for them - this is how it's going to work, and this is how you should sell it.

I probably lacked the self-confidence or self-belief to do this effectively. The one A&R man I did convince of their talents similarly lacked the budget and confidence to make it work, though he spent some time trying. He eventually quit the music business to become a missionary in Africa. I genuinely hope I wasn't in any way responsible for this.

This could easily have become another music business sob-story. Inexperienced manager wrecks hopes of genuinely talented band. For a long time it looked that it might go that way. I had made the mistake of combining friendship and business, things that rarely prove compatible, and when mixed neither usually survive. But........

Earlier this month Red Shoes released their debut album, Ring Around The Land. A masterful piece of work, completed with talented collaborators who understood and appreciated their art. You could say that it's at least 20 years too late, but there's no such thing as perfect timing - fortunately for them great music is timeless.

The full story, written by someone who can write and has a better understanding of music than me, is here. It is worth your time, this is a classic of the 'good will out', and true talent will overcome all adversity - but only as long as you stick at it.

Part two - the proper guide to band management is above.

Another qualified album review

The Red Shoes guide to Freeconomics is here, tells you a little of what you need to know about breaking through today, it was always about relationships:

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