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By Kirsty Walker
It’s four thirty on a dismal Wednesday in half term. On Hotham Street, Liverpool a line of roughly a hundred assorted scals and indie kids are waiting to be let in to the Carling Academy. Suddenly a film crew appear with a bearded man with middle aged spread. This is Simon Gavin, head of A&R at Polydor and music ‘mogul’ at the helm of Channel 4’s new talent show MobileAct Unsigned. A few scally girls in brightly coloured tights yell ‘Who are you?’. They’ve got a point.
It’s not X-Factor, it’s not Fame Academy, it’s not Pop Idol. That’s the line that Channel 4 want everyone to swallow. Those shows are about stuffing one more glassy-eyed warbler into the already heaving pop industry, and pulling every string available to make sure that they peak and disappear, ready for the next one whereas Channel 4 describe MobileAct as ‘a multi-platform search to find the hottest unsigned band in Britain’. Multi-platform means it’s sponsored by and utilises mobile phone technology (like X-Factor), that viewers can interact with the programme using the internet (like X-Factor) and that the public can vote on the winner by texting in (just like…oh fuck it, I’ve made my point).
So it’s the indie band X-Factor, which Channel 4 seem a little embarrassed about. They shouldn’t, the talent show has always been a staple of TV scheduling and is a legitimate form of entertainment. The problem is that the viewing public know exactly how talent shows work, and that rather than a shiny new band being presented clean and ready-wrapped by the NME, Radio One, MTV and E4, we get to see every slip up, every desperate begging session, every in-fight and every tear before we even hear enough songs to fill an EP. We get the people before the product, which is an unnatural way to experience a band.
Back at the Carling Academy there are six bands waiting to perform to an invited audience of free ticket holders and blaggers. Alex James, the bass player from Blur, and the aforementioned Simon Gavin are sat on a white leather sofa looking like Blofeld and his gimp whilst a jovial floor manager heats up the crowd. These bands have already been through an online vote and an appearance in the heats, where they performed in front of such musical luminaries as Just Jack (who when faced with a tumult of indie bands was left repeating ‘it’s not really my kind of music’ like an idiot budgie), Mutya Buena and gawking fool Calvin Harris. The bands were then further whittled down with a series of ‘interviews’ where the judges broke their spirits, treated them like scum and forced a series of contrived in-fights.
In 2003, Simon Gavin told music industry directory Hitquarters the following ; ““If all you have are TV-associated projects, real talent has a problem getting noticed.” One of the real problems with public voting as it exists on Mobileact is the unreliable ballot. Bands are asked in the early stages to get as many people as possible to vote for them on the Mobileact, which basically means that the bands with the most mates (or the most mates with multiple email addresses) do better. The TV monster which Gavin warned us of four years ago also turns artists with raw creative talent and balls into toadies of the highest degree. In the second round of the show the acts are asked to perform acoustically and are judged on this, all ready for Radio One’s Live Lounge with Whiley. Where is it written that all bands have to reduce what they do down to its simplest and most generic form? At this stage, any electro or hip hop artists are at a distinct disadvantage, and quelle surprise, it’s the guitar based indie bands which get through.
The first band to play in the Liverpool round of the knockout stages are Revenue, a swaggering lot from rock ‘n’ roll Peterborough who are the embodiment of the ready-for-TV band that the judges seem intent on putting through. For filming purposes every band has to play two minutes of their song for camera coverage (ie filming from different angles) before they perform properly. Revenue churn out their two minutes looking like they’d rather be anywhere else, turning away from the audience and messing with their instruments whilst playing. All of a sudden, they’re being filmed for real and darn it if they aren’t bouncing around and gurning like indie jesters. The passion, the effort, all fake. They turn it on like they turn their amps on, and NOW we’re rock and roll stars! The judges love it.
In 2004, in an interview for the Guardian on the rise of ‘art rock’, Gavin told Alex Petridis that “record companies are in the position that they have a very successful mainstream roster and it would be criminal not to exploit the resources….not to try something different as well”. How times have changed. Gavin’s mantra on Mobileact has been ‘It’s not commercial enough. I can’t sell it.’ It seems those downloads are pinching tighter than expected.
All of the bands here tonight are too worshipful, too desperate and too easily persuaded. When Simon Gavin tells The Bad Robots, a ska tinged bunch with the best song of the evening, that they’re a ‘safe option’, they nod and grin like it’s the greatest moment of their lives. Alex James tells all-female The Mentalists that they remind him of 4 Non Blondes (possibly the first outing for that reference in 12 years) they giggle, blush and show mock horror before giggling again. All of these bands, being cowed by the bright lights and the backstage privileges, seem oblivious to the fact that they’re being sized up, poked, prodded and rejected based on a scant set of ideals.
I ask Simon Gavin who his favourite band of the series is. His answer is the same as host Alex Zane : Hijak Oscar. A blues/soul/folk band (their description) whose influences are either dead or haven’t released a record since the dawn of MP3. All fine and good you might say, but Gavin has spent the entire audition process saying that anything other than electro indie, indie rock or just plain indie is ‘a niche market’, or the old chestnut ‘too difficult to sell’. Hijak Oscar cannot win this competition – the votes will come from people who call blues and soul ‘their mum’s music’, and where does that leave Simon Gavin and his relevance to this show, primarily watched by 14 to 18 year olds? By the time the winning band are in a position to release their debut album, about 12 months from now, the music scene which Gavin is trying to shoe-horn them into will have moved on considerably. On the final auditions show, he told an aspiring soul singer that it was Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse who were selling records now, not Jamelia or Beverly Knight. The possibility that this might change was not mentioned, just as it wasn’t when Mr Gavin dismissed a Screamo band earlier in the series.
When I ask whether this contest will produce anything relevant to music today Alex Zane, the nicest man in television, convincingly toes the party line; “MobileAct gives these bands access to contacts that they wouldn’t get anywhere else. They’ll meet people here who will help them in the future and I think they’re all benefiting from the competition. Plus there’s the potential that we find an amazing band.”
But who are his favourite bands, and would they have entered a competition like this? “I like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, people like that. Things have changed in music now and you never know. There are platforms like myspace and bands are doing a lot of stuff themselves so they might well have done.”
It’s hard to imagine John Lydon re-writing Anarchy InThe UK for the acoustic guitar but you can see what Zane is getting at. Music has changed, the way that music is promoted has changed, the bands have to change to some extent because unlike the dark ages of Punk, New Wave and even Britpop, the processes and the people behind A&R are accessible to anyone with Wikipedia in their favourites.
I ask Alex James, cheese purveyor, whether Seymour (Blur when unsigned) would have done well in this competition. “Seymour? Seymour wouldn’t have been invited” he replies. No, Seymour would have sent in an unsolicited demo to Andy Ross, the Food records A&R, and invited them to their gig. In fact, that’s what they did, and they were signed. Ask a tiny indie label about this way of working today, and the response is different. Nobody wants demos any more, they want hype, numbers and a ready made band of followers. They want a website, some choice quotes and a million myspace friends, as well as a band who have done everything they’re about to pay the record company for before, done it better, and for free.
So what’s next for MobileAct and its confusing title? They have recently revealed that viewers will be able to re-instate one of the bands who have been ejected. The favourites seem to be Yorkshire-based The Headliners, five cheeky chaps with nu-rave clothes and some spiky indie pop songs which plough that barren furrow between McFly and The Buzzcocks. They’re adorable, and you can imagine spending five minutes in their company and not wanting to dig your eyes out with spoons. Luckily the public vote for the winner of MobileAct, so if The Headliners make it back into the competition they will almost certainly triumph. Whether this is a poison chalice for any up and coming band remains to be seen.
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