The ballad of Wendy & Lisa

So in my travels I stumbled across this article on the 150 albums created by women.

This prompted me to write a long, angry, ranty blog post about how badly I think female artists have been treated by music critics (indeed by critics of all the arts), which I then deleted. I then wrote another much more moderate blog from scratch, and that also turned into a long angry ranty blog post. And so this time I showed it to Hannah, and said: can you just have a look at this for me? I’m not quite happy with what I’m saying here, but I’m not quite sure why.

And she said that, whilst it would basically be fine to publish with maybe a few tweaks, there was perhaps a very outside chance that some readers might interpret it as… possibly… mansplaining Feminism.

Which is exactly the thing I was worried about but couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Being male, my second-hand outrage is of no real importance to anyone, even me. And it wasn’t even supposed to be my original point. So here I go one last time, with that pitfall in mind.

First off, I think the article above is really interesting and well worth a read. And although I wrote this long sprawling thing about how Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill sold millions more copies than Nirvana’s Nevermind but is given far less cultural credit, basically… you could just read the article. There’s nothing that I was going to say that isn’t better expressed in there.

The point I originally wanted to make was about how the collapse of the old music business might be good for all aspiring recording artists, regardless of gender, because it is ridding us of a particular kind of incompetence. The thing that kicked it off was an example of sexism, but it’s actually the incompetence that got me so riled, because I don’t think it is acknowledged enough.

It all started when I was watching a BBC documentary on backing musicians, called Rock N Roll Guns for Hire: The Story of the Sideman. It featured Wendy (Melvoin) & Lisa (Coleman), who had been in Prince’s backing band The Revolution. Here is a clip of Wendy talking about her contribution to the song ‘Purple Rain’.

What really prompted my angry rant was the shitshow that unfolded when Wendy and Lisa tried to pursue their own recording career. A shitshow that seemed to perfectly encapsulate everything that was wrong about the old music business.

First, a bit of context. I’ve been booking artists for years now — mainly for live shows. That is essentially my role for the Folk Weekend: Oxford festival. I’m not amazing at it, but I think I’ve been doing it long enough to understand the basic principles of working professionally with other artists. And if you’ll just excuse a little “if I ruled the world” big-headedness on my part for a moment…

If I ran a record label, and I heard that Wendy & Lisa had just been let go of by Prince and were now looking to go it alone, I would want a meeting with them today. Because for me, this would be an absolute no-brainer. They are talented musicians, first of all. They write their own songs, and they’re clearly competent enough at songwriting for Prince, one of the most commercially successful recording artists of the decade, to allow them to collaborate on his songs. Which means they could potentially be a credible act with a long-term career that could make us all lots of lovely money. As well as critical acclaim, which doesn’t hurt. But perhaps more than any of these things, they’ve already seen the Big Time. They know how to works. They’ve been on global tours. They understand how the promotion thing works. They’re unlikely to go crazy with the success and explode in a cloud of cocaine. They’ve effectively been in training for stardom. They’re basically a finished package.

So my first priority would be to talk to them in person. Can we work together? Will we trust each other? Is this really the partnership-made-in-heaven that it looks like? Assuming for the sake of this blog post that they were interested in a deal with my record label, my next concern would be: do they have enough support? Do they have a team of people around them who will help them be as good as they can be? Do they have management they get on with, and that they can trust? Do they have good relationships with producers, tour managers, session and touring musicians? If not, can I help with that? Can I make sure they’re at the centre of a team who are the best in the business, and who are all working together for the same goal and loving what they do?

And if that was in place, I would have one more concern. However experienced they are, it’s a pretty safe bet that musicians who have been famous for being in a backing band are going to want to dazzle the critics by how artistically bold they are in their own right. That can be a problem. I would feel it would be my job to say: be bold by all means, but remember that this business relies on hits — on songs that get under the skin of the music-loving public. Get the hits in place, and you can experiment all you want. But even then, I would be realistic. Perhaps controversially, I would not expect the first album to be a commercial success. Or even a critical one. Even a couple of battle-hardened artists like these might not get it right first time. But I would hold my nerve, and focus on the second album. Because, if I was to manage this situation right, Wendy & Lisa could be the kind of recording artists that could basically fund my entire record label for decades to come.

What actually happened?

Well, according to Wendy, they got signed and dropped, signed and dropped, and the reason was always the same. The labels always said “You need to be fuckable first.”

The problem was that Wendy & Lisa were either unwilling or unable to project an image of heightened sexual attractiveness and availability. And the labels said that unless that was in place, they didn’t know how to promote them.

And the thing I shouted at the TV screen was:

IN THAT CASE YOU DO NOT KNOW YOUR FUCKING JOB.

Jesus, give it to me, I’ll do it if you can’t. I am perfectly aware that running a record label is far from easy. But it doesn’t get much easier than having artists like Wendy & Lisa on your roster. They have proven they have the talent. And they are already well-known. 5/6ths of your promotion work has already been done by Prince’s team. You just need to not fuck up the last bit.

But they all did, one by one. They fundamentally misunderstood who the artists were, who their audience was likely to be, and what the audience wanted from them.

Now yes, maybe there’s more to the story than this. It is all, of course, based on Wendy’s side of the story, which may be clouded by bitterness and vanity. Maybe there was some other reason why they were dropped, again and again. But my feeling is that even if that was the case (and I think it’s unlikely), this story has been repeated by pretty much every female artist signed to a major record label: you have to be fuckable first.

I’ve written a few things about where I think the future of music is going, and the name Amanda Palmer keeps coming up. Hannah reminded me of a story from 2008 which perhaps pinpoints the moment when the old world of “one size fits all” rock stars began to finally give way to the new world of independent artists who actually know what the fuck they’re doing.

Here is how Amanda Palmer herself describes what happened, in a blog post entitled the rebellyon. the deal with roadrunner records:

right before the european tour i went to the new york offices of roadrunner to say hi and check in.
my a&r guy (my main contact at the label) sat me down in his office and said he wanted to discuss the “leeds united” video.
he told me that there were certain shots that they wanted to either cut completely or digitally alter to “be more flattering”.

my favorite quote from that meeting:
“i’m a guy, amanda. i understand what people like.”

to which i reply: where have you been for the last five years?
do you have any idea who i am, what band i’ve been in, what kind of music i write, who my fans are….who didn’t send you the memo that i’m not britney spears? i’m not TRYING to look hungry. i’m trying to look HOT. there’s a difference.

the big irony here, like i said before, is that i am totally vain about shit like this.
i will be the first one to run screaming from photos where my fat little belly is rolling over my jeans and taking center stage.
i’ve been mistaken for pregnant so many times. it’s always funny. AND embarrassing. i was born with a fat little belly and i love wine. there’s just no changing things,
unless i want to live on salad. and i love salad, but not all the time. i also like pasta. even when the rest of my body is JACKED, RIPPED and SLAMMIN’,
my fat little belly happily stays in place. it’s just so.
i am used to it. and i have learned to Love the Belly.
still, however proud i may be of it in it’s natural state, it’s still not something i go out of my way to flaunt.
but this video….i mean, look at it. there’s just NOTHING there that anybody could really object to, even by MAINSTREAM standards.
so i was really perplexed. and i told the label i wasn’t changing anything. they backed down.

a few weeks later i had a meeting with the owner of the label. he said he thought it was a shame that someone as smart and talented as me could not make a commercial record that they could sell. and he thinks that someday i’ll see the light and write some better songs.

i told him i made exactly the record i wanted to make.

more than exactly.  i think i’ve made an INCREDIBLE FUCKING record.
i really do.

he shook his head and felt sorry for me.

i feel sorry for them. they are trying to sell pieces of plastic in a digital world.
but they’re barking up the wrong tree if they think they can katy perry or avril lavigne me into the walmarts of the world.
not into it.
never was.
sorry.
i never wanted to sell millions of records as my primary goal, nor did i want to be a pop star.
i am very fucking happy with what they sneeringly call my “cottage industry” life.

It’s far from easy, as I said, to be a label boss. I don’t want to suggest that they are/were all idiots who didn’t know their job. Clearly, the last few decades of great music show that someone somewhere knew what they were doing.

But even though I was deeply sceptical of the new music landscape to begin with — all I saw was the seemingly insurmountable problems —now, I too am very fucking happy with the “cottage industry” life.

And I’m really not sorry to see the old music business go. It was shallow, vain, prickly teenaged boy of an industry.

I’m sure there will continue to be those who believe that all the great albums have been made by men for men. I’m sure there will continue to be those who believe that female artists still need to be fuckable first. But seeing as they no longer hold the keys to the music business, I’m not sure how long they will continue to be listened to.