X Marks The Spot

I have spread my dreams under your feet,

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams

W.B.Yeats

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Where the gold is hidden, where the bodies are buried; wherever an X marks the spot, you can be sure there is plenty hidden beneath it.

Last night on the X-Factor Zoe Alexander, a Pink tribute artist, was rejected for, well, being a Pink tribute artist, because, they said, they’re looking for stars, not tribute acts. No surprises there, but her face told a different story. She looked stunned, uncomprehending of her rejection.

My first thought was, bit arrogant to expect an automatic acceptance onto the next round. Then she uttered the now immortal words,

‘But you told me to sing a Pink song’

Swift denials from the judges followed. Zoe stormed off, threw her mic, hit a camera and pushed a producer.

The article about her experience http://channelhopping.onthebox.com/2012/08/18/you-told-me-to-sing-pink-how-x-factor-producers-set-zoe-alexander-up/ (link via @derrenbrown) describes her reaction as ‘outrageous’ and ‘unacceptable’, probably to protect themselves legally more than anything else.

I think her behaviour was completely justified, because it transpired that she had been manipulated by the show’s producers for the past six weeks, told what song to sing, and set up for a fall.

This is despicable, yet hardly a unique story about ‘reality’ TV shows. This kind of thing is one of the main reasons these types of shows make contestants sign such stringent confidentiality agreements.

Most people realise that many TV talent shows are fixed in some way, allegedly (see what I did there?), but the contestants do not. They might shout ‘fix’ when they get passed over for someone less talented, but when they enter such a competition they truly believe they’re being given an opportunity to escape their humdrum lives and follow their dreams.

They are also told, time after time, how an appearance on such a show is a once in a lifetime opportunity and great care must be taken not to blow it.

So imagine how you’d feel to discover you’d been set up to fail; shaped into a laughing stock; tricked into sabotaging your ‘only’, chance.

There is a chapter in Jon Ronson’s book ‘The Psychopath Test’ that describes how TV producers are instructed to pick people who are just ‘mad enough’ to provide great TV by being a figure of fun to be poked with sticks, but not so mad that the experience leads to their going on a rampage with a shotgun. Sometimes they mess up spectacularly… read Jon’s book. Highly recommended. And follow him on Twitter @jonronson.

Some years ago I was at drama school with someone who got through a few rounds of a Certain Unmentionable National Talent Show (acronym will give a clue as to who the main judge was at that time, based on popular opinion of him). My friend became friends with another contestant who made it through to the final ten. Oh, the stories I can’t tell you.

I’ve had similar ‘set-up’ experiences in music. Not on TV, fortunately. People in the business side of things like to pretend they have money and power, and when the one who really holds the purse strings gets wind of things and pulls the plug, you’re the one left flailing and trying to piece your life back together in the midst of a complete loss of face, while they go on to pull the same stunt on some other young hopeful.

I hate the music business, I really do. Musicians by and large are wonderful people but the business really sucks. As a youngster I regularly had my carefully laid dreams stomped on for others’ amusement. People who pretend to be on your side, pretend to be your friend, will betray you at the first opportunity and they get away with it because of the Golden Rule: ‘Them that’s got the gold make the rules.’

I know I’m deeply scarred by much of this, and some may see my distrust of the music business as bitterness, and in many ways, it is. I’m bitter about having been lied to, led up numerous paths and ultimately betrayed, but most of all I’m angry at myself for not always listening to my dissenting inner voice and allowing myself to be shaped into something I’m not albeit briefly. And for spending too long trying to write ‘hit songs’ before finally discovering my real niche.

So whilst I hate the music business, I still love music and try to make as much of it as possible while keeping as far outside of the business as I can.

I wish talent show contestants would see this. No one can stop you pursuing your dream, but if you achieve fame it will be because you fit some kind of criteria. And if you don’t ‘make it’, i.e. storm the charts, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re no good, it just means that you’re not what they’re looking for. And fame really isn’t what you think it is, so think very carefully before deciding you want it.

Imagine if the Olympics was like the music business. The ones who got the gold wouldn’t be the ones who won their heats or scored the most over all, but the ones the organisers liked best.

Here he is, the 685th fastest man in Britain. He can’t really run, but he’s got ‘the look’. Let’s film a real runner bursting through the tape and superimpose our star’s head on the runner’s body for the video. His speaking voice isn’t up to much so he can lipsynch to an actor for his winner’s speech.

Sounds ridiculous, but you see it every day in music.

Whilst there have always been manufactured pop acts performing trite music, things in my lifetime got really bad in the 80s when Stock Aitken and Waterman had a stranglehold on the charts.  Pete Waterman later became a judge on Pop Idol, one of the forerunners of the X-Factor. Which says it all.

At the time I joined my first band there was a kind of consensus that if you got up on stage, played instruments and sang, you were musicians; if you included a dance routine, you were a variety act and were aimed at children and grandparents. TV talent shows are about variety acts, whichever way they try to dress it up.

When I was in my teens and early twenties and still sending demos to record companies, I couldn’t understand why the charts were filled with people who couldn’t sing as well as I can, warbling over songs I would’ve deemed weak had I written them as a five-year-old.

Now I know. The music business is just that – a business. It’s about money, not music, just as reality TV is about ratings not reality.

So, if you watch the show, don’t assume it’s real; if you enter it, don’t assume you’ll be given a fair chance; and if you win it, don’t assume you’ll have a career.

By SJB

The Art Of The Perfect Brief

I recently sang on a Big Ad.

It was another ‘Sound-alike’ job.  Sound-alike versions are usually employed when the rights to use a piece of music cost more than the budget allows for and are often referred to as a ‘copyright dodge’. This is something of a misnomer, as no copyrights are actually dodged, but in most cases it is cheaper to pay for a cover version of a track to be made than to use the original.

The thing to remember about sound-alike work is that firstly, no one sounds exactly like someone else (and often the job that lands in your inbox is from a someone you could never sound like in a million years and after several surgeries); and secondly if, after the million years and several surgeries you did end up sounding exactly like someone, you’d be inching your way into the hazy world of ‘passing off’ (i.e. giving the impression that you are that someone, and/or that they endorse your product), which you are not allowed to do.

So a better term for these jobs is ‘In The Style Of’, which is how one of my clients labels the product.

But anyway, back to the Big Ad. Most adverts use placement music, which is a piece of music for which they probably don’t have the rights, that is synched to the advert as a guide while it is still a work in progress.

What usually happens is that they get attached to that music, so when they find they can’t get permission, or it’ll cost too much to use, they commission a sound-alike or ‘in the style of’ version.

The problem with this is that it will never have the essential element that captured the heart in the first place, largely because they don’t really know what that element is.

It could be a barely audible breath the singer took before a certain phrase; it could be because the song reminds them of their beloved Nan; or maybe they used to dress up and mime to it as a kid and they want to feel that unrestrained again.

And whatever you do with the track it won’t be right.

This is, of course, their fault for not being able to provide a properly detailed brief (they can’t of course if they don’t know why the song is important to them), but they’ll try to make it seem like your fault, that you’re the one who’s ‘not getting it’, and they’ll give you nebulous instructions such as ‘more competitive’; ‘braver’; ‘lonelier’; ‘older’.

There were many versions sung of the Big Ad sound-alike.

It was to be edited on the Sunday (in a country with a time zone several hours ahead of ours), to be aired Monday.

I told them I’d have my gear set up until 10 p.m. Saturday night in case of any last minute changes. I left it until 11.30 p.m. then packed up and started working on something else, finishing that at about 3.30 a.m.

10.15 on Sunday morning the call came: ‘Can you make the last line more triumphant?’

Bear in mind, all this has to be taken on board while sounding as much like the original as humanly and legally possible. ‘And we need it by 11.30’

I am also in bed still half-asleep when I hear this message go onto the answerphone.

So I get up, set up my recording gear and make a radical decision.

‘If this needs to be different,’ I tell them, ‘I’ll have to ignore the brief.’

Which is what I did, and sang it as if I’d been told to sing this song without reference to the specific version they had used. The upshot? They loved it and went for my off-brief version.

On a different but related note, I still receive casting bulletins dating back to my drama school days, and if anything marks out an amateur film-maker it’s this:

‘Character: Chloe, student. 19 years old, 5ft 8 1/2 inches tall, blonde hair, green eyes…’

On the surface this might seem like the perfect brief. After all they offer concrete descriptions, not vague words like ‘brave’ or ‘competitive’, but think about it.

Here’s a clue. The character of Ripley in the film Alien was originally written as a man, but the character’s sex was irrelevant to the plot so ‘he’ ended up being played by Sigourey Weaver, the best actor for the job.

Look again at my example of a casting brief.

How would the story no longer work if Chloe had dark hair and eyes? Maybe she gets mistaken for another blonde because it’s dark and blonde hair is easier to distinguish in low light than subtler shades of brown. Ok, keep her blonde.

What about her eye colour? Is that an important plot point? No? Then forget it.

How would the story change if she was 5ft 1 instead of 5ft 8 1/2? It wouldn’t? Then leave that out or else you may lose out on the perfect actor for your film if you get hung up on height or eye colour.

So how about this instead for a casting brief:

‘Chloe, 19 year old blonde student. Brave and competitive.’

Here ‘brave’ and ‘competitive’ work as they tell us about her character. You see, creating the perfect brief is not so much about knowing what you want, as knowing why you want it.

Ripley is a strong character whose ingenuity and determination save the day. The made up ‘Chloe’ is a blonde student who gets mistaken for someone else and finds herself in a situation that will require her to be brave and competitive.

The Big Ad character, whom the song was meant to reflect, was a housewife boasting about the stain-removing prowess of her new washing powder. She didn’t need to sound exactly like the singer from the musical whose rights were too expensive to acquire, she just had to sound as if she meant it.

And if I’d been told that in the first place rather than ‘sound like this… but not like this’, I’d have had a Sunday lie-in.

By SJB