It’s Not Me, It’s You. An Open Letter to the Music Business

I fell in love with music at the age of three when I passed a school and heard a choir singing. I knew then that singing was all I ever wanted to do. But then, at around the age of 18, give or take a year, I met you and everything changed. You killed that love.

Now, many years later, I can’t remember the last time I sang for pleasure. For a long time, I blamed music, or rather I blamed singing. Why was I given a voice when it’s brought me nothing but heartache? And for many years I didn’t sing at all. I did jobs I hated even more than I hated the machinations of the music business. But now, as one of the many repeating patterns of disappointment and inconvenience is repeating yet again, I finally realise it’s not me, it’s you.

You promised me so much, but always snatched the rug away at the last moment. Just like an abusive lover, you were eager and attentive at first. You told me I was special, that there was no one else like me. Oh, how glad you were to have met me. We could change each other’s lives.

But then you’d change. You’d stop calling every day. You’d find fault with everything I did. The songs you’d claimed to love somehow didn’t sound as good now the time had come for you to take the next step and invest. Dedication, practice and gigging improved my voice, so you couldn’t say anything negative about that, instead you made irrelevant excuses for your sudden cooling off: I was too old at 21, too young at 22; too blonde, not blonde enough; looked better as a redhead, a brunette; with a tan, without a tan; I should write all the songs myself, should write with someone else; until eventually I got sick of the same old stories and left.

Then, just when I think I’ve finally broken the pattern, you come back, cap in hand, promising it will be different this time, and you somehow manage to draw me back in with the same old sweet talk and false promises.

But this time it was different. I’d found something else. Something that wasn’t music, something that might even pay well eventually, but you just couldn’t let me have it.

You knew, in this age of home studios and online sales, that you couldn’t get your hands on my music, so you tried a different tack. You couldn’t take my music, but you could take my time. You knew you couldn’t get away with asking me to work for you for nothing,  so you lured me in with promises of upfront fees. I know you like us skinny, but even artists have to eat occasionally.

So  I cleared a space for you again. Set aside my precious things, because this time you’d taken hostages, and if I said no, the only ones hurt would be them. And me. Always me.

The artists will always suffer at your hands. Because to you the only word that matters is ‘Business’. Music will always be secondary. A tacked-on qualifier that sounds like the ringing of cash registers,  the only ‘music’ that brings you joy. A nebulous word that is as insubstantial as the fee that dissolves into the ether as soon as you get me hooked again.

As long as you hold the purse strings, artists will always be barefoot and pregnant. Because that’s how you like us. That’s how you live through us, suck out our souls, and bleed us dry of hope.

There are clearly lessons to be learned from my reliving certain situations again and again, but I’m damned if I know what they are. And until I learn them, I’m condemned to repeat them. I try to take ownership of the unfortunate outcomes of so many arrangements. I must be missing some vital element that makes me fall for the same lines and make the same mistakes in business again and again, but I can’t work out what I’m doing wrong other than to believe what I’m told and to expect to receive what I’ve been promised.

Should I really distrust people, blame all for the wrong-doings of some? Is it really naive to take people at their word? Should I doubt first, make others jump through hoops before giving up the goods? Or should I carry on as usual, treat people how I like to be treated, assume their word is their bond, assume them innocent until proven guilty? Is ethical behaviour really too much to expect?

Despite all evidence to the contrary, despite so many of us having bad experiences in the music business, I’d like to think it’s more incompetence than malice that makes bad things happen to good people. But then, maybe I am naive. Maybe the dollar signs in your eyes have blinded you to the harm you do to already fragile people. People who should be nurtured and cared for rather than exploited, used up and thrown in the trash.

Because that’s what keeps happening to me and thousands like me, over and over again until we believe the world – your world – has no place for us, and we give up on our dreams and settle for a life only half-lived, because it’s just too much to try to navigate the treacherous oceans of your world.

Maybe one day I will learn the lesson the Universe keeps trying to teach me, and either I’ll leave your world behind for good, or cultivate the tools to exist comfortably within it. And maybe I’m actually getting there, because this time, I’m pretty damn sure that it isn’t me, it’s you.


Her Choice?


We know that porn harms relationships. Not just because some view it as cheating to focus sexual energy on a person other than one’s partner, but also because it causes skewed expectations of sex, and promotes a lack of understanding of how a woman’s body works. It can also lead to a kind of body fascism where normal, average looking people are made to feel unworthy, and it reduces people – men and women, but mostly women – to the status of a commodity, an object.

Porn is about the exploitation of women. All women. The attitudes perpetuated by porn affect women in all walks of life from those who have nothing personally to do with it, to those who perform in it.

‘But wait,’ is the oft repeated counter argument, ‘No one is forcing women to do it, and they are paid more than the male performers. It’s their choice.’

Is it really though? We are all the product of our early conditioning and life experiences to such a degree that it is debatable whether we have free will, or are merely repeating learned patterns.

That a high proportion of women in sex industries were abused as children has been the subject of many studies, as has the theory that victims of trauma repeat those experiences, supposedly on their own terms, as a way of taking back control, and seeking a kind of dubious comfort in familiarity. This of course brings into question the whole idea of choice.

Everything we do is coloured by our perception, by our pre-conceived ideas. We make life decisions, good or bad, based on experiences. What kind of experiences might a woman have had that made her think her best option is taking her clothes off and being filmed having sex with someone who isn’t her partner, someone the director has chosen for her?

I do not believe it is about money, freely expressed sexuality, independence, a misguided sense of empowerment, or any number of excuses people make.

We are what we’re told or shown we are at a very young age, directly or indirectly. Just switch on the television or open a magazine to see examples of how the sexualisation of young girls is treated as normal. This isn’t a recent phenomenon either.

For thousands of years, we have lived in a misogynistic society where women are silenced, objectified, denigrated, to the point where it is very difficult to know whether our choices are truly our own, or whether we are acting on years of conditioning.

Just a few days ago it was reported that the person behind Femen’s topless protests was a man. As I mentioned at the time, getting your tits out is always for the lads, and does nothing, in my opinion, to further the cause of feminism. Did those women genuinely feel their actions were empowering, or were they coerced, persuaded to do so?

As a child I had a couple of minor facial deformities that led to my being mercilessly bullied at primary school. They got fixed, but the bullying didn’t stop. I had already been cast as the monster, so no change in appearance could put that right. So much so that when I was aged around eight or nine, a couple of the bullies threw me into a brick wall and broke my nose, resulting in yet more ‘ugliness’ for me. And as the break didn’t cause breathing problems, I had to wait until I could afford to have it put right privately, which I did just eleven years ago.

So all but the last eleven years of my life have been spent under a cloud of perceived ugliness. The cloud was not there constantly. On good days, I could see that perhaps I was ok, on bad days it was as if the kids that crowded in on me with snarling faces and claw hands (because I was a monster and that’s what monsters do) were still following me.

Is it my choice that I remade myself to fall in line with an image that is considered to be conventionally attractive? Is it my choice that I am virtually unrecognisable to people I knew years ago because I can’t accept my natural appearance? It feels as if it’s my choice, but how can I be sure I would have done the same thing if my experiences had been different? It feels like my choice, but I will never be sure.

It probably also feels like a choice to pose bare-breasted for Page 3, to dance around a pole in perspex shoes, to be a groomed child acting out as a ‘sexual predator’ because that’s what you’ve been told you are.


Not The Hardest Word


In an earlier blog post ( I touched on the modern-day flawed understanding of forgiveness, and how nowadays it seems as if an apology, sincere or otherwise, must not only be accepted, but also considered to have righted all wrongs.

We have all heard of cases where a criminal has escaped a custodial sentence by, for example, writing a letter of apology to their victim. The real reason for this is to do with costs, prison over-crowding, etc., but the message it sends is that by merely writing or uttering the magic word ‘sorry’, all is put right and the wrongdoer has learned their lesson and reformed.


There is a world of difference between saying sorry and being sorry; fear of consequences is not remorse; and claiming to have learned a lesson doesn’t mean you have, or that you have even understood what the lesson is.

We are also told that people who forgive are happier and healthier than those who hold resentments; as if, once more, the victim is to blame for their suffering at the hands of another. Not forgiving, however, is not the same as harbouring resentments. It’s quite possible to let something go without absolving any guilty party.

And forgiveness without there first being some kind of atonement helps no one. The whole point about forgiveness is that it has to be earned for it to mean anything at all. The real lesson to be learned is one of empathy. For someone to commit a wilful act of harm on another there must be a lack of empathy. And where such a lack exists, there can be no genuine remorse.

For an ordinary, empathetic person, imagine how mortified you’d feel if, for example, you accidentally trod on a child’s foot. They’re crying, you feel awful, you’re sorry – truly sorry – even though you didn’t mean to do it, and you’d do anything to make them feel better.

Now imagine you’re a non-empathetic person in court for mugging an elderly person and stealing their pension. The judge says if you say sorry and make it up to him/her you won’t get jail time. You think, ‘So if I say a simple word and maybe paint his/her fence, I’ve got away with it? Result!’

What has happened is that because there was no punishment for the crime the event has activated the reward centre of the criminal’s brain. He/she has completed a Big Brother style task: letter written, fence painted, so he/she will still be able to stay in the main house.

This is how it should work. Person A does something bad to Person B. Person A gets away with it and goes on their way. Person B’s life is in tatters. At first Person A thinks, this is great, no consequences; if they think about it all. As time goes by Person A starts to think about what they did to Person B and realises it was a pretty bad thing to do. Guilt eats away at them, they can’t sleep and they try to think of ways to make amends. Maybe they could confess, that’d be a start. Of course, if they confess, there’s a chance that they’ll go to prison. But that doesn’t matter to them any more. All they care about is to atone for what they did. Prison is the least they deserve. And it still doesn’t guarantee forgiveness, and even if it did, it wouldn’t mean they could forgive themselves.

That  would be a lesson learned in remorse.

And for something that illustrates this point very well, you could do worse than see ‘The Machinist’

I’m not saying that wrong-doers should be punished for all eternity, but let us not forget that their victims often are, and empty apologies do nothing to help them move on, and the first duty of care should always be towards the innocent.


Are You A Feminist?


This is a brief irreverent post for anyone out there who has ever said anything like, ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ or ‘Equality, yes; feminism, no!’ (saw that one on a forum, read it in my head in a whiny, pouty voice). Here are a few pointers that may help you work out whether or not you are a feminist.

Basically, if you believe that people should be treated equally, and judged on their character, actions and abilities rather than their sex, then you are a feminist. I realise that’s a bit simplistic, so here are some example scenarios that can cause confusion.

Scenario one.
Q.  I shave my head, wear dungarees, and hate all men. Am I a feminist?
A. No. You are someone who shaves their head, wears dungarees and hates men.
Q. Ok, how about if I shave my head, wear dungarees, and believe in sex equality?
A. Yes, you are a feminist who shaves their head and wears dungarees.

Scenario two.
Q. I wear make-up, high heels, and pretty dresses. I can’t possibly be a feminist, can I?
A. Do you wear make-up, high heels, and pretty dresses because someone forced you to?
Q. No, I wear them because I like them. So am I a feminist or not?
A. Do you believe that women are inherently inferior to men?
Q. Of course I don’t! I believe in equal pay, equal rights, and all that. So am I a feminist?
A. Yes, you are a feminist who wears make-up, high heels, and pretty dresses.

Scenario three.
Q. I march around in jack boots and PVC hot-pants, force my husband to stay at home, wear dresses and answer to the name of Hilda, while I go out to work for an all-female government committed to subjugating men for all eternity. Am I a feminist?
A. No, you are living in an episode of ‘The Worm That Turned’ by The Two Ronnies. This scenario is the bizarre fantasy/nightmare vision of what the unenlightened 1970s thought would happen if feminism was allowed to exist. Chill out and have a Pa’s Bar.
If, however, you and your partner both consent to and enjoy acting out this scenario in the privacy of your own home, that is your prerogative. And if you both believe in sex equality, then you are indeed feminists.

So, in a nutshell, feminism is about sex equality; no more, no less. All kinds of people are feminists; most have additional views which may be good or bad, and which are largely irrelevant to whether or not they are a feminist.

Hope this helps to clear things up.


The Weight of Words

“With freedom comes responsibility”
Eleanor Roosevelt

I wrote about this subject before, when a nurse took her own life after being pranked by two Australian DJs,

Today, I am writing about it again after the suicide of primary school teacher Lucy Meadows following her harassment by the press.

In these circumstances, we have to say that there is not necessarily any link between what foolish/careless/cruel people may have said, done, or written and another person’s suicide.

We have to say that, whether or not it is true. The reason we have to say it is as follows.

Freedom of expression should be a right, but with all rights and freedoms come responsibilities. Words have weight. While the sticks and stones of thoughtless remarks may not break bones, they do break spirits, hearts, lives.

If you want to attack vulnerable members of society, and as a result of your hounding they kill themselves, you must own your part in that. Similarly, if I were to accuse a journalist of hounding someone to death and that journalist then took his or her own life, I would have to accept culpability.

This is what free will is: you make your own choices and you live with the consequences. Ignorance of this Universal Law is no excuse.

No one knows what is going on in another’s life. People who kill themselves are not weak-willed or fragile. They have just reached their limit. Don’t be the straw that breaks them.

Think before you exercise your freedom of expression. Is it really such a hardship to refrain from verbal assaults? Opinion isn’t fact, the private lives of ordinary people isn’t news.

Only a poor journalist has to resort to sensationalism, only a weak writer has to rely on demonising vulnerable members of society, and only a fool then bleats that they were ‘just saying’ when challenged on their vitriol.

What it boils down to, yet again, is bullying.

A bully is someone so acutely aware of their own failings that they have to point out the perceived failings of others in the vain hope that theirs are not noticed. Yet the very act of bullying marks out its perpetrator as an inadequate loser, and so the vicious cycle continues.

And sadly many of these bullies are allowed to spit their venom across the pages and websites of national newspapers, thus giving their views the appearance of credibility, when they are really only self-hatred directed outwards at those less able to fight back.

The time for change is well overdue, but the changes needed are at an individual level. All the while bigots posing as journalists are given free reign to express opinions, but are not held responsible for the consequences, the objects of their hatred will continue to be crushed beneath the weight of their ill-considered words.


Road To Hell

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.


Many things piss me off in life, but probably none more so than bullies, especially those who won’t take responsibility for their actions and, when confronted with their behaviour, hide behind the pathetic plea of ‘it was just a joke.’

Comedy is of course subjective, but when someone or their misfortune is the butt of it, to them at least, it’s far from funny.

Recently, in the news has been the story of two Australian radio presenters whose prank telephone call to a hospital may have led to the suicide of nurse Jacintha Saldanha. Until the full facts of the case are known, it will not be certain why Jacintha chose to end her life.

Many have said that even though the prank call and its subsequent broadcast may have been ill-conceived and in poor taste, no one could have foreseen that it would cause one of its victims to kill herself.

Really? No one could have considered that publicly humiliating someone and possibly causing them to fear for their job might result in their suicide? What no one at all?

Maybe I have a warped way of thinking, but I do try to consider the consequences of my actions before I act in any kind of extreme way.

Maybe this has something to do with writing fiction: the tendency to extrapolate all possible outcomes of a particular situation; maybe it has something to do with having been bullied myself and understanding how wretched, how close to the edge, it makes you feel.

It is important to understand that it is not always the case that someone who commits suicide has many things go wrong in their life, or that they are ‘fragile’. Sometimes one inciting incident can be to blame. Of course there could be a downward spiral of subsequent events that ultimately leads to the suicide, but even if there are, the person would still be alive were it not for that one thing that tipped them over the edge.

When someone kills him or herself, they believe that is their only option, that it is the ‘right’ thing to do. It is not a selfish act, as some think. Selfish people rarely kill themselves, as they generally manage to make sure their lives work out exactly how they want them to.

Someone who takes their own life usually feels, how ever misguidedly, that the world, and the lives of their loved ones will be better without them.

For some, the end comes via a swift method, for others it is a slow decline perhaps from alcohol or drug addiction. Still suicide, but drawn out over years or decades, because although their life is unbearable, somewhere in the back of their mind they realise that their death will hurt others, so they end their lives indirectly, not realising that their destructive lifestyle has been hurting those they love all along.

But what of jokers, pranksters, whose actions lead to someone’s death. Are they culpable? Or should their claims that they didn’t mean for it to happen absolve them of all blame?

Sometimes not intending for something to happen doesn’t make you blameless. No one gets behind the wheel of a car intending to kill someone, but if you drive drunk, or recklessly and then unintentionally kill or injure someone, then of course it’s your fault.

There is a world of difference between an accident and an unintended consequence. An accident is something you could not have foreseen or prevented. An unintended consequence of a reckless act is both foreseeable and preventable, and when there’s a tragic outcome it’s because the perpetrator couldn’t be bothered to think things through, and just assumed that everything would be ok because they considered their immediate need to be greater than anyone else’s potential injury.

Everyone acts recklessly from time to time. In future try a little ‘what if’ before doing so. Put yourself in the position of the person on the receiving end of your actions. Think like the Dr Pepper advert and ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ Take the idea to its absolute extreme and imagine what might be the worst possible outcome of your actions.

Some have said that if you have to think so hard before ‘playing a joke’ on someone, then you won’t be able to do anything. That’s only half right. You just won’t be able to do anything cruel or mean-spirited.



A Day In The Life

So, I was in this singles bar wearing my skimpiest outfit sitting beneath a flashing neon sign that read ‘I am available, please approach me’, and this man just wouldn’t leave me alone. Eventually I had to shout at him to go away, and he appeared quite shocked that I should have done that, seeing as how I was so obviously just waiting for him.

Except it didn’t happen like that at all. It actually happened like this:

I was walking home from the supermarket wearing jeans and a puffer jacket. It was after 5pm and already dark. As I crossed the road, I heard a man making kissy noises and saying ‘Sweetheart, sweetheart.’ I assumed he was calling to his dog, reassuring it that it was now safe to cross the road.

I was wrong. He was talking to me. I did what I always do in these situations and completely blanked him.

So he followed me, actually walking at my side, all the time saying, ‘Sweetheart, sweetheart, why won’t you speak?’

There are a few reasons why I won’t speak. Firstly, I spend a lot time lost in my own head, often planning something I’m working on, and I don’t like to be interrupted; secondly, I’m not in the market for being chatted up in the street, so I don’t want to be perceived as giving even the slightest encouragement by entering into any kind of conversation, and thirdly, well, why the hell should I? If someone needs help or directions, then I’ll do what I can, but the usual opening gambit in that situation would be ‘Excuse me, do you know the time/way to the bank/gross national product of Brazil?’ and not ‘kissy kissy sweetheart.’

Another reason is that I’m very good at keeping control of my temper, but incidents such as this have a cumulative effect, and, like a volcano that’s been simmering away resentfully for decades, eventually I am going to explode. And then I’m in a bad mood for the rest of the day, which means I can’t work effectively on the things I was working out in my head before I was interrupted.

Anyway, explode I did. Not in an extreme way. I simply said, ‘leave me alone, ok?’ but in a far sterner and louder voice that he was probably expecting a ‘sweetheart’ to have. But then he had followed me half the way home. He seemed shocked, contrite even, and sloped off.

I didn’t feel scared or threatened in this case, though sometimes I have, I just felt irritated and annoyed. And once more I was reminded that being a woman is in some ways similar to being famous.

If you are famous people stare at you in the street, maybe take photos. They strike up conversations while you’re trying to catch up with friends over a drink. Sometimes they follow you.

All those things have happened to me, and I’m not famous. But some people feel the same sense of entitlement towards women as they do towards celebrities.

By which I mean the same mentality that says to the famous, ‘you’re in the public eye, therefore you’re available to me 24/7’ says to women, ‘you’re out in public, therefore available.’

Some of my friends are famous in their field and are often recognised when we’re out. They’re always gracious about it, but it makes me uncomfortable to think that private or business conversations might have been eavesdropped on, or that I might be the subject of gossip, the ‘mystery blonde’ spotted with someone I’m merely having coffee with or discussing a project we’re working on.

Sometimes what women wear is blamed for attracting unwanted attention, though most of my unwanted attention has been received when I’m dressed casually and usually laden with shopping, so I can’t put it down to dress, even though in an ideal world one should be able to dress how ever one chooses without fear of being accosted.

A well-meaning former work colleague (male) once suggested that perhaps my hair sends out the wrong signals.

Of course! That must be it. All the time I’m going about my day, minding my own business, behind my back (literally), my hair has been rising up like Medusa’s snakes and spelling out messages like ‘come and get me, big boy’ and other such 1970s sitcom-style chat-up lines.

Whilst it seems a ridiculous idea that someone might perceive a hairstyle as a come-on, it gave me a valuable insight into the way some people think. If anyone considers hair, eye or lip colour as being some kind of signal of availability, then they have to be pretty messed-up.

I don’t believe a woman’s appearance has anything to do with whether or not she gets hassled, although it may be used as an excuse: ‘she was so attractive I couldn’t resist’, or ‘she was a bit plain so I thought it would cheer her up’, maybe ‘she was wearing red lipstick’, or worst of all ‘her hair led me on’.

Why is this still happening in the 21 Century? I have no idea. Will things ever change? I doubt it.

I don’t personally know any men like that. Whether they’re friends or colleagues, none of the men I know behave in a predatory or disrespectful manner towards me or other women.

The only ones who do are strangers; which leads me to consider that as strangers they don’t consider me to be a ‘real’ person, but rather a representation of the idea that women are objects, just there for amusement.

Maybe those strangers act differently towards woman they know, maybe they don’t. Maybe there are just some elements of society that will always disrespect others.


X Marks The Spot

I have spread my dreams under your feet,

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams



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 (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.


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.


When Is A Joke Not A Joke?

With freedom comes responsibility
Eleanor Roosevelt

Today I saw a ‘joke’ on Twitter that offended me. It had been RT’d by someone I was following. I explained I didn’t want to see things like that on my timeline, so unfollowed, but wished them well. The poster of the original tweet came back with a good natured ‘chill out, it’s just a joke’

And this is where the debate becomes interesting to me.

We have a certain amount of free speech, so anyone can make a joke about anything they want. Humour is subjective; therefore many jokes will offend people, even when offence is not intended. But you have to stand or fall by what you say, and accept any fallout.

People have the right to joke, and people have the right to be offended. People don’t, however, have the right to expect you not to be offended simply because they were ‘joking’.

Anyone who remembers what happened when Ricky Gervais used the word ‘mong’ will know what I mean and where I’m going with this.

The ‘joke’ that got my back up was this:

“@MartyZobel: My new favorite charity is the Tempura House. You might’ve heard about it…it’s a shelter for lightly battered women.”

In posting the tweeter’s name, I’m respecting his copyright, not pointing him out as a target.

Here’s another one of his.

“Q. What do blonds and the Bermuda triangle have in common? A. They’ve both swallowed a lot of seamen.”

To my eye, these jokes are misogynistic, but they may not be meant maliciously. Each falls into a different category, and each offends me for different reasons.

A joke can be extremely dark without being offensive, and the line between darkly funny and offensive can be a fine one. When a joke offends, it has often failed in either pitch, e.g. aimed at wrong audience, wrong style of joke for subject matter; or it has a flawed internal logic.

The first joke is, I feel, wrongly pitched; the second reinforces stereotypes.

On the surface, the battered women joke is a light-hearted play on words, but on a subject that is far from light-hearted. It got a few RT’s from women, who may have been more focussed on the ‘tempura’ reference than the underlying inference, that there is such a thing as being ‘lightly’ battered, i.e. a little bit beaten, somewhat abused.

Women who report abuse, and not all do, often find their experiences trivialised: it was ‘only’ emotional abuse; ‘only’ a slap not a punch.

The second joke relies on the stereotype that women with blonde hair are whores. I have no clue as to how and when this idea first came about, but the thought that anyone might subscribe to it is both laughable and horrifying.

A joke based on stereotypes says nothing about its subject, but speaks volumes about the one who said or repeated it.

But with regard what is or isn’t offensive, it can only be for those who are in or close to the group at which the joke is aimed to decide. And if you have to tell anyone to ‘chill out’ in response to their reaction to a joke, the chances are you’ve overstepped the mark, and it probably wasn’t that funny.