A Life In Music # 1 by Lord Zion of SPiT LiKE THiS
Written by Lord Zion
Thursday, 30 July 2009 00:00
There used to be a Kit Kat advert on TV that sums up what the music industry was once like. In it, a bunch of urchins (kind of an 80’s punkish band) are in the office of an A&R man. He plays their tape (note: tape!), listens to it then says something like: “You can’t sing, you can’t play and you look awful…” cue the dejected expressions, the snap of a Kit Kat and then “…you’ll go a long way!
OK, it’s only an advert but it has a ring of truth. I have first hand anecdotal evidence of something similar happening to someone who had a massive hit in the USA during the 80’s. I will spare his blushes but, basically, he walked into a major label’s offices armed with a tape of songs that were actually recorded on a tape deck, not in a studio, and walked out with a 5 album deal. Within a year, they were in the Top 10 in the USA and touring with Michael Jackson. That won’t ever happen again.
So, what’s gone wrong? In the years that I have been working in bands, I have seen some major changes. I thought it might be interesting to share them with you. After all, many readers will only know what it is like to try and make a career out of music utilising weapons like Myspace and ProTools. I’ve been doing this long enough to have seen the changes, experienced them first hand and the effects it has had on this industry.
When I first decided I wanted to be in a band, which wasn’t that long ago (it was in the 90’s), there was really only one route to do this. You formed a band and you played gigs in the hope you would get “spotted”. If you were really lucky, you cobbled together some cash to record a demo, but studios were expensive so most bands never got to do this.
I was lucky. My first band experience came with a bloke who had saved enough money to buy a Tascam 688 8-Track machine (the ProTools of it’s day) and a drum machine. Using that, we recorded some demos which, at the time, we thought were nothing less than legendary but, listening to them now, they are quite shocking, quality-wise.
However, those demo’s got us into the hallowed pages of Kerrang’s long-gone “View From The Bar” column, serious label interest, management and a couple of gigs at the Marquee Club (when it was on Tottenham Court Road). Things were looking great for us, until Mr 688 decided to beat up a rather famous and prominent A&R guru. D’oh!
My next band couldn’t afford to record. These were the days when it was £500 just to walk in to a studio, let alone actually lay down any tracks. But, we had a plan and we entered the South East England Battle Of The Bands. After several heats and hundreds of bands, we only went and won the whole fucking thing which gave us a day in a studio PLUS £750! Using that dosh, we recorded a pretty decent sounding demo, one we were proud of.
What to do next? Well, fuck knows! This was pre-internet, so knowledge was much harder to come by than it is now and people were much harder to reach. We didn’t really know what to do but we knew the record companies were all based in London so, one day, we went up town and literally went banging on doors. Somehow, I managed to blag my way past the security and through to reception and even beyond the secretary of the guy I wanted to meet. But he wasn’t there; we just missed him. As we were leaving though, I mentioned to the security guy that he wasn’t in only to be told that he’d just come back, so I legged it back to the office and cornered the guy.
To his credit, he invited us into his office and listened to our whole demo. He didn’t want to sign it, but he did suggest some other A&R dudes we could take it to. Back at home, we rang these guys up and, on the strength of the recommendation, were able to book appointments. None of them worked out in our favour though – grunge was still the in-thing and me sitting there in lipstick didn’t impress anyone!
My bandmate quit rock n’ roll to live on a boat in Monaco, so I was back at square one again. I secured a grant from the National Lottery which I used to buy some of this fancy new PC recording equipment and a freakishly awesome soundcard. I could now record my own stuff so it was time to get back to advertising in the music rags for new musical partners. It wasn’t too long before I found one and he bought along with him this thing called The Internet.
Through my fancy new Lottery funded computer, I could connect to The Internet and discovered on it a world of…well, not a lot, really. The USA had cottoned on to it a year or so earlier but, this was late 90’s so the whole thing was really in it’s infancy in the UK. However, we managed to build a website and the hits – along with strange enquiries – were coming in.
The musical climate was still to change. Things were different back then. These days, any genre is acceptable, any look is fine. Your audience is out there and they can find you; you can find them. In the late 90’s though, the internet was new and no-one guessed at what it was going to do to music so everything was still lead by the magazines. I had an incling though because, although I was in a band that was creating music that wasn’t the least bit fashionable, we were building a fan base and selling CD’s through this thing. This could be the future!
We recorded, manufactured and sold our music all from the one room in my place. OK, that band didn’t last but I could see how to exploit all this new technology to my best advantage. This was exciting stuff. I could now write and record the music that I wanted to create, look the way I wanted to look and disregard the vagueries of fashion (not that I ever followed it, I was just aware of how out-of-it I was!). I didn’t have a plan yet, but I did have a million ideas and I had the germ of my next project: SPiT LiKE THiS.
I met that germ, Vikki, at the end of 2001. She was like a girl version of me and, being a narcissist, I liked the idea of that. She also played bass, was fresh out of school (well, not quite, still in 6th form) and was looking to join or start a band. Her attitude and ideals were like mine. Her musical tastes were similar and, ethically, she worked for me. It was at a Hardcore Superstar concert at The Underworld in London that our fate was sealed. In between bouts of me puking copiously, I decided to start SPiT LiKE THiS with Vikki.
Except, it wasn’t called SLT then, it actually started off being Viper Room 69. Don’t ask. As bad band names go, it was among the worst. We even used River Phoenix’s death certificate as part of our promo stuff. None of that nonsense lasted long though and the SLT monicker was soon adopted and we launched ourselves onto the World Wide Web.
That was in 2002. I can’t tell you how many millions of hits we have had since then and I can’t tell you how much good fortune has come our way down to our online activities. As well as our main band site, we set up SMELLYOURMUM.COM which started off as our guerilla style ambush tactic to get people to take notice before morphing into the clothing company we know and love – and earn our living from – today.
Our early success was totally down to the internet. We collected people’s email addresses and sent out tens of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of free stickers, something we still do today. We went from Zero’s to Heroes in a very short space of time and, through our site sold our CD’s and merch until we put a gigging band together. Soon, we hooked up with management and, with their help, released our very first “commercial” (ie something you can buy in the shops) CD.. That was in 2005 and, thanks to our online presence, that CD made it into the Rock Top 10, went number 1 on Amazon and sold very well, thank you very much.
Then everyone started talking about this “new” thing called Myspace. I was reluctant at first. Why did I need this when I have a dot com? But I signed up and stuck the band on it and, for a while, everything was rosy.
But it couldn’t last. The argument goes that Myspace levelled the playing field. All of a sudden, anyone could get their music heard and they could be seen without needing to hire webspace. It’s a valid argument but it falls flat in several areas. First off, where is the commitment? It seems to me that, quite literally, someone forms a band and the first thing they do is create a myspace page and start adding friends, often before they have any music written or recorded. If they do manage to get an actual live band together, they start hustling for gigs. Nothing wrong with that, except that they will happily play for free. All of a sudden, promoters and venues can get for nothing something they used to have to pay for. Of course, these kids all live at home and their parents pay for everything, so they don’t need to worry about actually trying to make a living.
The final nail in the myspace coffin was that every Tom, Dick or Harry started announcing that they were “promoters”. And why not? They knew the landlord at their local boozer and they have a myspace page – what could go wrong? Can you see what’s coming?? These promoters do one of two things. They either contact “named” bands like us offering us gigs, which we take (for a fee) only to find out that the “promoter” couldn’t promote a hard-on in a tits factory. OR, they grab any one of these upstart bands that will play for free, put on a show, it is diabolical and all the teenagers that show up decide that, going to gigs is a bit shit, actually, so they stay at home and play with their Wii’s.
I’ve seen Myspace go from a useful tool for a working band to a place that is just so awash with bands, it really is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. We get so many bands add us every day, it’s daunting. To have any kind of “name”, however small, in this day and age is quite an achievement. To be one of those bands that has managed to make itself known out of the millions that are out there impresses the shit out of me! But I know how much hard work it has been.
It used to be that, being in a band was about writing music, playing music and, if you were among the 0.001% of bands that ever got to record an album, you were in a very small club. These days, the music comes last. These days, it is all about marketing. Sad but very, very true. You could be in the best band in the world but, if you aren’t internet savvy and don’t have any marketing nouse, chances are you will never be heard of again. So many great bands that we listen to and enjoy probably would never be if the market then was as it is now. For a start, no labels take risks these days and, secondly, standing out from the crowd is nothing to do with being exceptional and everything to do with hitting the right marketing buttons.
I’m lucky, I “get” marketing and understand how to sell.. Because of that, I am in a band who is fortunate enough to be signed and has a route to market. Between us (ie the band and our label) I am sure that we can become a much bigger, more succesful entity and carve some kind of career out for ourselves. I also see that Myspace has had it’s day and am glad to have continued promoting our main website – something we own, that cannot be closed down on a whim and isn’t policed by censors that might not like some of it’s content. As the web grows to become the first-stop for all entertainment, we will be glad to have a place full of valuable content where we can stream concerts and stay in touch with those that care.
And it is those that care that really matter in all this. I can honestly say that I work harder at this than I ever thought I was capable of. Vikki and I work constantly for little financial reward (as all our spare money gets ploughed back into the band) on both the band and the T-shirt company. I suspect, if you had told the lazy Zion of old how much work would have been involved to get even this far, he’d have had another cigarette and racked up another game of pool instead. But you see, every time I get to that point where I want to tear my hair out, wondering what the hell I am doing, it’s at that point that someone will reach out from cyberspace to tell me how much they love our band and thanking us for existing. How fortunate are we to receive such messages?
All-in-all, on reflection, I think we would have stood a better chance of getting to the point where we could earn a decent living from music sooner with the old music business model. And I speak for all, hard working, career-minded bands. Labels used to understand that you required money for things like food and they gave it to you. These days, only the very biggest bands actually receive money for any deals they sign with labels. I know of several “big” indies that no longer give advances or any kind of living wage, meaning you have to, in effect, work two jobs. Unless, of course, your parents pay for everything, which kind of explains why so many bands regularly gigging these days look about 12 years old! If anyone is out there wanting to become a rock star, I can tell you a thousand things that are easier to do and a hundred thousand things that will earn you more money – but none that is as much fun or rewarding.
Until next time…
© 30th July 2009 Lord Zion