I have something in common with many other Popular Music lecturers: I failed in my ambitions to become a pop star. There’s no particular shame in this. Most pop dreams end in failure. It has been estimated that the UK has one group of musicians for every 1,000 members of the population. This would mean that at any point in time there are nearly 64,000 bands in existence. Of these, only a small percentage will gain record contracts, and of those who gain record contracts only a fraction will make a profit for their record companies. From the 1960s until the present day a statistic has been frequently repeated: only one-in-ten signed acts will succeed.
I have something else in common with other failed pop stars turned lecturers: I want to explore the reasons for failure. The most thorough analysis of failure from the perspective of musicians comes from Michael Jones, a lecturer at the University of Liverpool and a former member of Latin Quarter, a group who were dropped by Arista Records because they couldn’t follow up their hit ‘Radio Africa’. Jones has outlined the numerous and contradictory attributes that a newly signed group needs to be successfully ‘commodified’. They are ‘small businesses striving to become huge businesses almost over-night’, and ‘yet they have no business experience, qualifications or, often, even raw acumen to help them’. They have to ‘convince record companies at all stages that what they are likely to produce is likely to sell in order that they retain the company's best efforts with regard to them’; if they don’t the record company will switch its attention to another of its signed acts. They need to have an understanding of the record company’s commitment, and yet they ‘can never truly gain this knowledge because they never truly engage with “the record company” as an entity but only with the few staff assigned to work with them’. In summary, Jones argues that most bands ‘are the victims of their own naivety in an environment that punishes the naïve’.
Keith Negus, professor of musicology at Goldsmiths and a member of various unsuccessful bands, has produced the most thorough analysis of failure from the perspective of music industry personnel. He has argued that failure can be the result of ‘conflict’ amongst record industry departments, in particular the A&R and marketing teams, who might have different visions for an act. He has also suggested that industry staff can become demotivated due to the attitudes of acts. Some artists ‘simply refuse to cooperate’, while others denigrate the work that has been put in on their behalf. Ultimately, the will of industry staff can be affected by ‘whether they actually like the music being produced’.
There can be a fast turnover of staff in record companies. Therefore, the people who are working with an act may have had nothing to do with signing them. This leads us to another crucial factor when determining success: timing. Jones and Negus have stressed just how much has to come together at the right time, with the right people involved, for an act to succeed. Negus has suggested that the most common scenario is ‘different staff assessing the potential of artists in different ways and developing their own agenda and goals rather than working towards a shared overall vision’. Jones has come up with an elaborate flight scheduling metaphor to explain the complexities involved:
Record-making, release and promotion can be likened to take-off and landing schedules at international airports. A time-slot is identified for departure, the necessary maintenance and boarding procedures are initiated and, once completed, the air-craft is cleared for take-off. If, for whatever reason, there are delays which prevent take-off then the aircraft must wait until another 'window' arises – and departure delays can sour the mood of passengers and crew alike as well as make for disruptions in schedules at the 'other end'.
He then points out the difference between airports and pop careers. Regarding the former, ‘complete cancellation is almost unheard of’. Regarding the latter, ‘careers of pop acts may not only be subject to delay, they can be cancelled with no redress’. Negus deepens this gloom. He argues that, although artists whose contracts have been cancelled ‘are – in theory – free to find another record company, in practice it is often very difficult’. He has two main reasons for this. Firstly, the act is now tainted and will be viewed as a ‘financial risk’ by other record companies. Secondly, the act’s music and image will probably have to be re-thought. This repackaging rarely convinces ‘sceptical’ industry gatekeepers.
The importance of timing is reinforced by rock mythology. Would the Beatles have become famous if Raymond Jones hadn’t ordered a copy of their single ‘My Bonnie’ from Brian Epstein’s record shop? Would the Sex Pistols have coalesced if Johnny Rotten hadn’t been spotted wearing an ‘I hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt? There is ample evidence of acts being dropped if they miss their one golden chance (see, for example, the film The Great Hip Hop Hoax).
Nevertheless, I think that both Jones and Negus go too far. It is notable that they start their analyses of failure from their experience of being members of groups. Their scenario of ‘one chance and one chance only’ holds much truth in this respect: it is not only hard for bands to be re-signed, it is hard to keep a band dynamic intact in order to be re-signed. However, music industry practice can be less terminal (in both its medical and aviation senses) when it comes to solo acts or individual members of bands. David Bowie and Marc Bolan were both signed by a number of different record companies before they achieved major success. In a similar manner, Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix were industry veterans by the time they achieved fame. More recently, artists such as Lana Del Rey and Robin Thicke have recorded for different labels before having hits.
On a personal level, most of the people I know who have succeeded in the music business have been signed and dropped by record labels, and they have been members of several different bands. In fact, it was only through failing at their first attempts that they gained the necessary experience and acumen to negotiate the commodification process. I performed in bands in Gloucestershire in the late 1980s. One of the most popular local groups was Apple Mosaic, who were signed and quickly dropped by Virgin Records. Their guitarist, Ian Dench, went on to form EMF, who recorded for Parlophone and had a number one hit in the US with ‘Unbelievable’. The singer of Apple Mosaic, Laurence Carrington-Windo, was also re-signed. His band Bedazzled released a number of singles on Columbia Records. In his case, however, he came no closer to being a one-in-ten. If at second you don’t succeed . . .