Swimming in shark-infested musicbiz waters. Sharpen your teeth and toughen up.
I love the Music Industry in Birmingham. I'm only cheering from the sidelines: I don't have a stake. But it fascinates me, as do those who run venues, promote shows, or invest in costly recording kit. Then there's the snappers, the house concert superfans, bloggers, the radio guys, the video producers and more.
This week I had an engrossing conversation with Roy and Jaki Davis, a couple who built Madhouse Rehearsals and the Asylum venue into a solid proposition though sweat and grit.
I knew Roy from his days playing bass with Shy - a fine 80s Brum band, one of many whose talent and promise just weren't enough.
We did a radio thing together. I got great stories. I also got some scary stuff.
Hey, where did our mates go?
I remember meeting Jaki with Roy when they ran their charm offensive. They lobbied every month at music meetings; a fixture at gigs, always with a friendly word and a big grin...
Jaki: We were trying to establish ourselves - in a friendly way. Of course, we were in competition with established places, and in our sweet innocence, we didn't want to clash with them. So we tried to be honourable and offer ourselves as an alternative if they were booked out.
Roy: It didn't work. There were a lot of dirty tricks.
Yes. We all think music is just about creativity. I started as a fan, and then saw how the record industry dealt with its 'product' - one of the sharp ends of a vicious, manipulative red in tooth and claw business.
Roy: You know how it works, and you retain your romantic view of how it could be. But we've come quite cynical. It's a business.
Most of the musicians I know don't make money. It's terrible, but I can't help admiring them for their work. You're running a business, Roy; you have to be business-like. I don't call that cynical, I call that realistic and professional. Hard-headed, maybe.
Jaki: When we opened, we thought it would be sweetness and light. And of course it wasn't. People let us down; we had to deal with all sort of staff issues. So I did become very... strong. And very fierce. Roy couldn't do it. But me doing it, I was a lot more scary, 'cos I'm little. And I look like I mean it.
Cashflow must have had something to do with it in the early days.
Jaki: I was very scared that we might lose our home. It makes you very focussed.
Tough as old boots? Well, maybe
So are you really telling me that this industry – where you have your mates as well as your clients - has made you hardened and unpleasant and cynical?
Both together: Yes!
Roy: My outlook has changed dramatically. I've done pretty much every facet, from playing in a band to managing, doing the publishing, running a record label, running a venue. I understand what's going on. People don't understand why their tracks are not being played on the radio. You didn't play my demos from thirty year ago, after all! And you learn to understand the reasons. We hear a lot from artists, running venues as we do.
You hear established artists slagging off gig promoters for not putting artists on. Ten years ago I'd have agreed with them. But it's really hard. People don't always come out the way they used to. So understanding it does make you more cynical. We still love music!
But you're still here, and you put a lot in to this place every day. Could we substitute 'business-like' for your word 'cynical'?
Roy: The one goes with the other.
When the record company drops you from a great height.
This is really interesting. Depressing, too. Stuff comes round, doesn't it? I see the same mistakes, I hear the same music. But I don't think that's always bad. It's fresh to the artists who are doing it for the first time – look at Reggae, Dance. Indie or Rock, if you like. They all build from the past. But if something brilliant comes along, by someone who's maybe a third your age – well, that's terrific. And I really don't think we disagree there.
Jaki: But maybe my cynicism comes because Shy, Roy's band, really were brilliant. Even if you didn't like their music, they were brilliant. Everyone in the industry said they were going to make it; a foregone conclusion. Roy was in the band; I lived his band days through him. They lived the life, without making any money. And then one day, we woke up, got a phone call. Just a call – 'Oh, just thought we'd let you know, you've been dropped.' That was it.
It happened twice to us, didn't it? Those two phone calls changed our lives. The second one, when it was really over, we'd got kids... and we hadn't got a penny. The way the money, the advances and the royalties, comes in – always behind - you're living on borrowed money. And we couldn't even get dole money.
Roy: I think it's actually harder now. Because bands today don't even get advances.
Jaki: But I had to watch you go through the agony of seeing everything you'd worked for, all your life, gone.
You saw it happen to bands before you; you've seen it happen since. You know it's part of the package.
Roy: I've got no bitterness about that, at all. The bottom line is: there are some fabulous fabulous musicians in Birmingham. A lot of the guys who get by in music shows and in bars, they could go into music sessions in LA and Nashville tomorrow, and be equally as good. The difference is: it doesn't matter how great you are, you've got to write the track. There's people who aren't very good, but they write great songs. It comes down to the song that touches everyone out there. So I'm not bitter, because we never had that track. We had great tracks, but not the track.
And magic nights live...
Roy: We were a great band live. We did a lot of supports. There were many nights we blew the headliners off the stage.
Jaki: You had to pay people to stay on your mixing desk so your sound wasn't messed up.
Roy: All the tricks, yes. But look at some of these bands from the era. Say, Europe. Everyone says 'what a joke'... But they released 'The Final Countdown'. It's still played on the radio now. Joey Tempest is still making loads of money from it; that's his pension. And when people say "I'd hate to be a one-hit wonder", I say "I'd LOVE to be that one-hit wonder". I suppose I'm cynical when I see mates -
Jaki: Don't lie, you got no mates.
Roy: - when I see mates my age, who still think they're going to make it.
Ambition, idealism, hope. That can't be wrong.
Hold on a second. No reason why people shouldn't aim for something. They know what the odds are, don't they? I'm seeing people come back on stage in their 50s and 60s, loving it. And now most of them can actually play!
Roy: If they live it, if they reform for fun and they're enjoying it, they can accept that that's how it is, and everyone's happy – then I think that's great.
Jaki: Yes. If you can stay in the industry and make your money till the day you die, awesome. But I hate all these old bands, big bands, coming back on tour. There's not a nice way to say this. I saw one lot the other night, won't mention their names, they were just awful. A fat one, a dead one, one you couldn't see. Awful.
Yeah, but a band that was big 30 years ago still matters to its audience.
Roy: For me the Rolling Stones are still worth watching. Or Duran Duran. And they had good songs from the start. But we know bands that can fill the Academy... who still have day jobs. That's the state of things.
But that's band as brand, with new audiences glomming on to an image. They use killer sidemen, the best production, the best tour crew, all that. That guarantees the experience, but doesn't give you naked musicianship. I wish Prince hadn't cancelled that solo piano gig he was going to play here. He would have had nothing to hide behind. Just like a kid at an open mike night.
But look, despite what you say, it's obvious that you still absolutely love the business you're in. And your business is running on rails – maybe not the way you'd planned it, but that's often how it goes. You're not going to bail out now, are you?
Jaki: Well, the sad thing is, we get a lot of young bands coming though, and they're so good. They should be huge. And at the back of my mind, I wonder what job they're going to be doing in five years? I know how hard it is. I worry for them. Maybe that's why I'm cynical.Jaki, I think that could not be less cynical.
A great conversation. Good job I had my recorder running. After that we segued into music memories for Brum Radio, and pretty damn fabulous ones they were too. I'll let you know when it airs.
Here's the problem: most people need to be open and fresh and idealistic to make their music, but you need a tough skin to survive the industry. The problem is when that skin becomes a carapace, and nothing gets in or out. There are no answers or remedies for the way things are. But I'm full of admiration for Roy and Jaki. They may be sweeties, but they're hard-boiled sweeties.
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