Music Genres and Corporate Cultures
Book by Keith Negus; Routledge, 1999
Subjects: Popular Music--History And Criticism, Sound Recording Industry
I first made contact with a record company in 1974 when, with an aspiring school friend, I mailed the only copy of a badly recorded reel-to-reel tape to Donald ‘Jumbo’ Vanrenen at Virgin Records. Thinking back on this long-lost recording, produced with acoustic guitars and keyboards in one ‘live’ take in the back room of my parents’ house, I am surprised that we even received a response, let alone the brief letter that accompanied the returned tape. I recall that our songs had ‘promise’ but that the vocals were ‘weak’, and we were advised to try and record using better-quality equipment. That was the beginning of a long association with the recording industry, during which I would spend many hours in the offices of record labels, production companies and song publishers, initially as one of the numerous musicians and songwriters attempting to ‘make it’ in the music business and then as an older and increasingly wiser sociologist attempting to understand the peculiar mixture of reckless abandon and cautious indecision that is such a feature of the music and entertainment industry.
A few years after that first tape, a number of us had made the transition from back rooms and bedrooms to performing regularly in pubs, community centres, youth clubs, parties and then more recognized venues. I had become a participant member of a passionate, competitive yet convivial and somewhat idiosyncratic music scene. My co-writing school friend soon joined X-Ray Spex, with whom he briefly achieved a certain degree of fame and a lesser degree of fortune before finding himself working in the office of a building society. After stints in numerous bands, I ended up performing with the lesser known and more embarrassingly named Coconut Dogs, who released a couple of singles and played numerous clubs, bars and provincial venues before sinking into ever deeper obscurity and the inevitable bust-up due to the stupid arguments that are euphemistically referred to as ‘musical differences’. I then trailed a route through various ‘solo’ outings, typical early 1980s faddish synthesizer projects, and moved in and out of temporary bands while playing ‘sessions’ with a variety of people who provoked in me equal doses of elation and despair.
All this time, the music industry and various artist and repertoire (A and R) people, agents, would-be managers, publishers and wheeler-dealers were lurking in the background and occasionally stepping into the foreground. I was on the verge of signing a lucrative (compared to the dole) publishing contract for songwriting, but the company who were ‘interested’ in me suddenly had to make financial cuts as a result of the early 1980s recession, and my contact lost his job. I was about to sign up with a music business contact who was to be my manager and procure me that elusive ‘solo deal’. But he suddenly disappeared. My telephone calls to his personal contact number, and then to his ex-production company, eventually provided me with the vague information that he had, rather suddenly, ‘gone to Argentina’. I had much interest from another ‘manager’, and after a number of telephone conversations we met in a dingy bar adjacent to a London station. Here he presented me with a vision of how he saw my stage show and future direction. He evoked an image of me in a small theatre before an audience, the house lights dimmed, and then—after he uttered the phrase ‘dry ice’—I stopped listening and my mind wandered on to other projects. I do remember taking the train back to the suburbs in a rather depressed state.
When I realized, during one of my more sane and sober moments, that (as Neville Shakespeare) I had told a journalist that I had ‘turned my back on aspirations of fortune, fame and stardom’ and was ‘producing ecological acoustic piano music that might appear before the nuclear holocaust’ (I still have the news cutting), it became apparent that something was not quite right. It was either the music business (and its peripherals) or the factories and warehouses where I had been working to support the ‘earnings’ from my music habit that were driving me crazy. In desperation I became a sociologist, devoted my time to attempting to understand what I had been through and tried to figure out why I was now sitting in a library in north London and not recording my latest album in Manhattan. Armed with a degree in sociology and a grant to study for a Ph.D., I revisited many of the same offices and boardrooms (or maybe they simply appeared to be the same). I walked into rooms with a pencil in my hand, and stared thoughtfully at similar rows of desks, low comfy chairs, cool dudes, blank security guards and bored-looking receptionists. I hung around at the back of gigs, seeking out the packs of A and R staff, and listened in on their drunken conversations. I spoke to pop-paper people, sifted through the words in journals, trade magazines and biographies and connected all of this to a range of sociological ideas. If, in retrospect, one of my motives in studying the industry was undoubtedly therapeutic, I also had two fairly clear and well-formulated intentions. First, I would be able to impart some knowledge and wisdom to anyone brave or stupid enough...