Thursday, February 18, 2010

The A & R Man said "I don't hear a single"

The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty's song, Into the Great Wide Open.

It is loaded with that world-weary cynicism that Tom Petty does so well. He is a success in the music industry with a long career and a load of albums sold, but he knows the struggle he has had to get where he is and the clash between the artist and the rest of the food chain. A songwriter writes a song because he or she feels compelled to do so, as a form of self-expression, but in popular music, that song can have a commercial value and so the struggle between Mammon and the artist begins.

I don't place myself in the same exalted company as Tom Petty, but in my twenties I pursued a part-time career as a rock vocalist which, let's face it, most people dream they might be able to parlay part-time into full-time.

We started innocuously enough. When I was 19, I met a good friend when he became my flatmate. We are still friends 34 years later although we live in different islands.

I had a cheapish acoustic guitar which I intended to teach myself to play on. But if I am brutally honest, I was a bit lazy and too caught up in teenage social life, plus I was embarrassed because I had difficulty tuning the guitar. The weird thing was I could tell if the strings were out of tune, but I had trouble hearing when they were in tune. I am certainly not tone deaf because I have good pitch for singing ( a respected studio engineer once complimented me on my ability to replicate so accurately several vocal takes).
Anyway, my guitar languished until my friend started messing around on it. It was painful to listen to at first, but I guess that is the way with any learning. He got proficient because he was pretty dedicted and practised a lot.

He and I went overseas when we were 20 and returned to our country when we were 22. He learned a new passion: skiing. So in the Southern Hemisphere winter of 1980, we took our savings and became ski bums for a season in a southern ski town. We skied by day and drank in the pub by night, but we also started writing quite a few original songs and recording them on cassette on a small tape recorder I had.

In the North Island, we had an old friend who led a covers band based in a rural town. We had no ultimate or ulterior motive, but we were sending copies of our taped original songs to this friend.

When the ski season ended, we headed north with no real plan ( as you do when you are young and fancy free). We were staying with my friend's mother when we got a call from our friend saying that his band wanted to move away from covers to originals and would we move up there and join his band as vocalist and lead guitarist.

So we did. His guitarist had too many work commitments and was quitting, but our friend fired the vocalist because he drank too much and was unreliable. This engendered some bad blood though and not long after we started rehearsing, the drummer, a very conservative guy, quit. Luckily, we found a young guy with lots of personality and imagination, but an untrained sense of timing. It was shaky for awhile at gigs with songs slowing down and speeding up, but he soon got the sense of playing in a band and turned out to be a great drummer with real flair.

For the next three years, we played hundreds of gigs throughout the rural towns and small cities of the area. We tried to break into the biggest city market by entering a prominent Battle of the Bands competition held in a large nightclub venue. It was telling that we were up against about another 6 or 7 bands of varied styles, but we garnered the most enthusiastic and largest dancefloor participation, but we didn't win. We had heard from a number of people in the music industry that the contest was always rigged by a prominent booking agent who organised it. This booking agent was impressed by us and our crowd response. We had half an hour to play and we played 6 originals and a blisteringly good Lou Reed cover ( I can't remember if it was Sweet Jane or Rock'n'Roll ). Our guitarist had patiently listened to those soaring Steve Hunter lead breaks and could replicate these difficult note sequences very impressively. The booking agent was keen to get us work, but not, as it turned out, in the big city where we would compete with his other clients. He got us a gig in a nightclub in a large regional city playing half-hour sets between the DJ's stints. We defiantly played our own songs, but the DJ/manager wanted us to play covers. He disappeared during our last set, skipping off without paying us our agreed fee. It took a lot of phone calls and hassling by our band leader to finally get the weasel to pay off. Curiously, the booking agent never booked us any more gigs.

This is a long blog, so I had better cut to the chase.

After about 3 years of excellent writing/performing grounding experience, my guitarist friend and I quit the rural-based band and moved to the biggest city to pursue our ambitions. The others had a quandary: they wanted to be big rock stars, but they wanted to stay on familiar territory, the small rural town where they grew up.

After some frustrating times, we hooked up with two guys who were a great rhythm section, bass guitar and drums. They were school friends and 3 or 4 years younger than us, but the two pairs of friends seemed to connect pretty well. I had an immediate connection to the bassist who had a great sense of melody and some great musical ideas.

For two years, we rehearsed and recorded, but it was a time of yuppie piano bars and a bad time for live and sweaty rock bands. In a city of a million people, there were only 3 venues for original bands to play and one of those was pretty sewed up by an independent record label's roster. We organised some of our own gigs, but the lack of audience outlet for our songs was extremely frustrating. We recorded our first EP with five songs on it. We got a tape lease deal with an independent record label who released it. It was 1985 and vinyl was still in its primacy, but about to be pushed aside over the next few years by the CD. Without many gigs to promote it, but with a couple of videos screened on local TV and some limited airplay by the more adventurous radio stations, we managed to sell a respectable 300-plus copies of our first EP.

Which brings me to my point. FINALLY, I hear you sigh.

I took it upon myself to put a lot of effort into promoting our EP. But radio stations in our parochial country were slavishly subservient to overseas trends and "formats". Radio in our country didn't even play Crowded House's song, Don't Dream It's Over, until it hit number two on the US Billboard charts!

It is 500% better for aspiring musicians in our country now, but commercial radio had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this point.

I hawked that EP around every commercial radio station in that big city, but never made it past the sniffy young secretary who thought she was uber-hip because she worked for a radio station. They wouldn't even spare a few minutes to pass it to the programmer who also wouldn't spare a few minutes to listen to something fresh that might appeal to his (they were invariably male) listeners. Some overseas format had determined that his listeners wanted an endless diet of Doobie Brothers and Fleetwood Mac.

Even today in the 21st century, Don McGlashan, a widely respected songwriter about my age, stills writes a wryly funny song taking the piss called Radio Programmer.

Because Don knows that when you write the moving, lyrically interesting, character vignette types of songs he does so well, that "the A & R Man" can still say: "I don't hear a single".

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