X Factor and all who sail in her, surely by now should be the scourge of the ‘music industry’ nation. Yes, in the early days I would sit and watch it with my kids, protesting loudly that it was in fact for research purposes, and not at all for pleasure. Now though, and indeed for some time, the dirty bloom of that form of entertainment has rubbed off, and even though I am aware, somewhere near the back of my mind, that there is a Liverpudlian lad that would make quality cruise-ship material, this year I have stopped watching. We all know that great music will never come from this kind of show, but it is the selection process that baffles me (and angers me), the choosing of not just the promising but also the hopeless and deluded, all in the name of ‘entertainment’, something for the great British public to laugh at. Since when, was making music, something to laugh at?
Since X Factor.
We have banned ‘bear bating’, ‘fox hunting’ and ‘dog fighting’ but it seems some human beings are still ‘fair game’ for ritual humiliation on national TV. The judging panel, of course, must be aware of this and yet still manage to look bemused as the talentless are wheeled on to impale themselves on the barbs of jumped up celebrity. The final straw for me this year came as one of the judges (someone who is generally thought of as an elder statesman of the pop world, and indeed is referred to as ‘The Captain’ by one very blond Radio One DJ) thought nothing of smirking and imitating the movements of a boy, who certainly (in my opinion) had some special needs, whilst he earnestly tried to perform the said judge’s biggest hit.
It would seem that the aspirational needs of the panel, far outweigh the need for any compassion that might normally be afforded for such an individual. Such a cynical move I thought, to even invite this boy to compete, knowing he would be laughed out of town.
Unbelievably, this tired format that was always a big bag of wrong, limps on for another year. The damage it does though is substantial. There is big and quick money to be made here, not just in the huge fees paid to the judges, but also in the initial downloads and colossal airplay revenue and not forgetting the advertising (that we are all grateful for, in between segments of the show) The real issue though, is how the record industry as a whole has lost confidence in itself. Artists are now dispensed with, sometimes before even releasing anything. Long-term investment in talent and unique creativity has been downgraded, and in its place, commercial hype for the quick return is in pole position. It’s the music though that suffers the most. An average song now last for days rather than years. Pop is eating itself with unparalleled hunger.
My Dad used to frequently quote Sir Thomas Beecham, who once said,
“It’s got to have a damn good tune”
This came about though because Dad found it hard to appreciate the beauty of anything composed post 1890 and as it became apparent that my interest in pop music wasn’t going to go away, it was his opinion that this saying had particular relevance. And in a way it did. A great tune will live on.
Last night, during a particularly galling episode of ‘Made In Chelsea’ my daughter brought to my attention, during the commercial break, that the advert we were gazing and glazing at was the Ministry of Sound’s ‘Essential Anthems 90’s’ and it happened to feature a tune I had had a hand in, indeed it was playing, right there in our living room. Grateful, that at least part of the turkey this Christmas was now paid for (these compilations do not make a man rich) it struck me that this particular tune was now at least 15 years old and was still, in a bizarre way, as relevant as it was back in 1997. I will always remember how it came about. Written, recorded and pretty much finished in a cellar under my Derbyshire home, this song in a sense had humble beginnings. I had bought a new studio toy called an ‘Akai 1000’. It was a ‘sampler’ and so logically I now needed to look around for things to sample. Being lazy and at this time very much into the classical piece ‘Adagio for Strings’ by Samuel Barber (a dark and haunting outing for string orchestra made famous more recently by its feature in the film ‘Platoon’) I had the CD, it was in front of me. Was it trying to tell me something? I saw no reason to look any further and ‘sampled’ the opening chord. It was a complex chord (I could name, it but we would all fall asleep) and showed it to my writing and production partner. He recognised it as something special and once recreated (to avoid the suing of arse) he spun it back into the sampler and manipulated it into an opening riff that was ‘to die for’. This then triggered a melody from me, and soon afterwards, some words, simple ones for a message everybody could relate to, the saying goodbye to a loved one, something most of us will have had to suffer, at one time or another. Then followed the beats, supplied by my partner and looking at my watch I noticed all but an hour and a half had elapsed. But by this time, as if the song had a life of it’s own and had forced itself to be written, we knew, as we grinned to each other in a smoke filled Victorian cellar, that we had created something special. The next day our singer joined us and we were able to record her voice, which had a suitably dark and distinctive timbre and complimented the song perfectly.
All writers and producers know that this moment has to be savoured, it may never come again, it is an elusive thing that nobody knows how to harness.
All this happened at the very start of this particular project. From memory it was the third song we had written and normally we would have gone on writing for much longer before trying to chase a deal. But, with management in place and a mutual buzz around this tune, we decided to start the, usually longwinded and humbling process of finding a record deal. It didn’t take long, and soon enough we had a number of major labels all bidding to sign us up, pretty much on the strength of one song.
Interesting I think that when first released it only made it to number 41. Today we would surely be dropped, unceremoniously dumped into the ether, never to be heard of again. But no, our record company believed and after a short break they tried again. This time though things were different and as the radio stations around the country began to add us to their playlists, expectations began to rise. Some people may not be aware that there is such a thing as a ‘midweek chart’. This gives a pretty good idea of where you’re going to end up come Sunday morning when the final chart becomes available. It told us we were number 5.
Sunday morning came and thrilled just to be even in the top 40 we could now celebrate in earnest. Crammed into a white transit van and south bound for a gig that night, spirits ran high and the cramped conditions and smell of petrol were of little concern. We stopped halfway for fuel and as I perused which flavour of crisps to buy, my mobile phone began to buzz (an early Ericsson, shaped like a brick) It was our manager. My heart began to beat heavily. I answered.
“You’re the nations number one”
It can still be done this way, and there are many examples of acts that have recorded at home and showed the world, through the eyes of ‘YouTube’, what they have been up to. Surely now, it has never been easier to let people know. As technology becomes ever more accessible and affordable, we can all be creative without having to know the right people or consider soiling our hands with a talent show. We all now have a voice. It is a free, if not congested and difficult, market.
A few years ago a young male singer came to me to co-write a song. He told me in the car, as I drove him from the station to my home, that he had been approached by a senior TV executive and asked if he ‘fancied winning X Factor’. I cannot prove how much truth there was in his story, but even if there was some, it goes a long way to illustrate how much trouble we’re in.
Let’s hope there is enough rage against this machine at Christmas time to scupper the inevitable.