– “What would you say to a 15-minute interview for a feature I’m doing?”
– “Of course, would it be cool to contact my regional press about it?”
– “The phrase ‘long way for a short cut’ comes to mind”
– “I know….it’s a pile of pish….(is there such a thing as a pile of pish?!) but they make me do it”
The words above were taken from a Twitter correspondence I had with one of the artists I interviewed for the feature you are about to read. The great irony is that the topic of conversation I wanted to discuss was the murky world of major labels and just how much control they have over the acts on their roster.
It seems a particularly relevant subject given that there are several young Scots who currently find themselves signed to majors at an embryonic part of their careers. The youngest is Edinburgh’s Alex Gardner, 19, who is being groomed for stardom by A&M/Polydor, while 22-year-old Clackmannanshire native Iain Campbell, aka electro-rock act Kid Adrift, signed to Island Records at the turn of the year.
However, the three musicians I spoke to are at a slightly more advanced stage in the whole process (all have debut albums due out this year) and the wheels of a well-oiled machine are already turning at some speed to give them the greatest chance of success.
If they get it right and everything clicks into place in their record company’s masterplan, the fame and fortunes that will come their way should change their lives forever. However, fail at this level and the fall is so much harder.
A fourth Scot who had originally agreed to be interviewed backed out at the last minute when I explained what the feature was about. Little did I know the axe had already been ruthlessly wielded because of poor sales.
It’s a big, bad world out there, so three of Scotland’s dream-chasers are going to tell you what the view is really like from the inside…
PEARL AND THE PUPPETS signed to Universal Republic/Island Records (labelmates: Amy Winehouse, Florence And The Machine) last year. Pearl is the alter-ego of Kirkintilloch’s Katie Sutherland, 22, and her backing musicians are the Puppets. Their debut single, Because I Do, will be released on April 26.
THE BOY WHO TRAPPED THE SUN is the nom de plume of singer-songwriter Colin MacLeod, 24, who is signed to Geffen (labelmates: The Saturdays, Dame Shirley Bassey), although his forthcoming Home EP, which comes out on March 1, will be jointly released through indie label Chess Club. MacLeod is from Stornoway but relocated to London two years ago after signing a publishing deal with Universal.
KASSIDY are a harmony-driven acoustic folk-rock band from Glasgow, signed to Vertigo/Mercury (labelmates: The Killers, Metallica). Barrie O’Neill, 22, (pictured second from left) is their main songwriter. The group’s debut release, The Rubbergum EP, is out now.
ARE YOU UNDER CONTRACT FOR A CERTAIN NUMBER OF ALBUMS?
Katie: “Yeah, which is quite scary, signing my life away. It’s for a few albums, I can’t remember how many. I suppose, like every artist, it depends on how well it goes.”
Barrie: “I think it’s a four-album deal but that’s not to say we couldn’t get dropped any second like a bad habit. We believe the album will be a success, as do Mercury. They claim it’s going to be an album you’ll still listen to in 10 years’ time.”
WERE ANY OTHER LABELS INTERESTED IN SIGNING YOU?
Colin: “A couple. My manager sent the demos to all the labels and there were three or four who liked it and wanted to talk about it more. They asked me what I wanted to do so I told them I wanted to produce my first album myself and keep it quite lo-fi. Pretty much all of them laughed at us. Geffen were the only ones who said they could do that. They have been really good to me. They are a major but they have given me space, time and all these opportunities.”
Katie: “I had an offer a couple of years back, but at the time I didn’t have a manager and I felt I wasn’t ready. So it seemed the right decision to develop my sound for a year or two before signing a deal, which is what I did.”
WHAT DO YOU LIVE OFF OF?
Barrie: “When we signed our Sony publishing deal we got about ten grand each and that was to be spent sensibly, so we all bought good guitars and stuff. We also get about £200 a week from the management just to survive on. If the band does well, the proceeds from album sales will go towards paying back the advance. If the record fails, I think you have to pay it back yourself.”
Colin: “You get an advance at the beginning of the year and then you get another advance when the record comes out. It’s more like being self-employed. You have to be quite strict. You have to budget and not go wild because that lump sum of money at the start of the year has to last you for the next 12 months. It’s not like the days of yore when you could buy a house with your advance. The way I’ve lived hasn’t changed since I got signed, put it that way. It’s not champagne and caviar every night.”
Are your current earnings the equivalent to that of, say, a full-time waiter?
Colin: “I’d say so. Pretty much.”
WHAT ASPECTS OF YOUR CAREER ARE OUT OF YOUR CONTROL?
Barrie: “Our management will deal with offers that come in for radio, live sessions, interviews, how much money we’re supposed to get. The music part is up to us.”
Colin: “There’s press people, radio and all these things that have to be set up while you’re sitting twiddling your thumbs, thinking ‘what the fuck’s going on?’ It takes a bit of getting used to but it’s in your best interests.”
Katie: “There’s nothing really ‘out of control’ – you just have to consider other people. You need to have approval from your label for things such as which producer you work with, who you are writing a song with, who you are doing collaborations with. They’re in control of putting out the music. They know what they’re doing. You have to trust them sometimes. Not all the time, sometimes.”
What about your image?
Katie: “I had my first proper meeting with my label at the beginning of the year and they said they completely loved what I was doing and what I was wearing. You’ve just got to be yourself and I think that will come across better than trying too hard to be something else. If I did an FHM photoshoot I’d get a phonecall from my dad asking me what the hell I was thinking!”
WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF LONDON?
Colin: “It took me a long time to get the balls to get out of my comfort zone and move down here. It was a bit scary, it’s such a huge place. I used to have nightmares of walking around London and getting lost forever. I don’t think I’ll always live here but it’s good for the music. I’ve been able to meet people in a couple of hours’ notice as opposed to arranging to meet in the middle of the next month and booking flights. I tried really hard to do as much as possible from the Highlands and Islands. There are a lot of opportunities for bands who work out of there but it’s still only up to a certain stage. You can’t go the whole way yet.”
Barrie: “It’s a beautiful contrast. You see all these glitzy things going on and then you come back home to the subtle beauty of Yoker. It always keeps your feet on the ground when you know you have the local 24-hour shop open for your cigarettes.”
Katie: “I’m not really a fan of travelling in London, getting the subway, because no-one talks and it’s really strange. I had to move down there for a while and I didn’t really know a lot of people so that was weird. I only got to see my mum and dad once a month.”
Did it hinder things with your boyfriend?
Katie: “It did, but we’re back [together] and it’s all good, so that’s fine. As long as I stay in Glasgow.”
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN PUSHED BY YOUR LABEL TO WORK WITH OTHER SONGWRITERS?
Katie: “I’ve co-written some songs but it’s not like anyone has made me write with these people. I always bring the idea, tell them what it’s about and we just go for it. It’s a really personal thing, you may as well strip naked in front of them.”
Barrie: “We done it once as an experiment. We worked with a guy called Steve Robson, who has written with Mariah Carey, Leann Rimes and Leona Lewis. We tried a couple of things with him and came out with a couple of tunes. But we’re very independent and we believe we can do it ourselves so all the songs you’ll hear on the album or any songs we’ll release are from us alone.”
Colin: “I worked with a lot of people. It’s a brilliant thing and I think everybody should try it. You can learn a lot about songwriting, chords you would never think of, melodies. I wouldn’t have progressed to being comfortable with my own songwriting – and not question myself so much – if I hadn’t worked with so many shit-hot writers. I did loads of stuff with Ed Harcourt and a couple of those songs will be on the album. We also did a duet that’s going to be on the EP. I also learned a lot from Julian Gallagher, who has worked with U2 and Kylie.”
Were you skeptical at first?
Colin: “Oh yes, I was dead against it! The first time somebody suggested it, I was like, ‘On your bike, no bloody way’. But you have to swallow your pride, you can’t be precious. You don’t get anywhere in the music industry by being closed up. It doesn’t do you any harm to sit in a room. Sometimes you hit it off with somebody and you come up with a kick-ass song. And sometimes it doesn’t work out and it feels a bit awkward and weird. You come out thinking, ‘This doesn’t sound like a song I would write yet it’s my voice singing it’.”
WHAT ARE THE PROS OF BEING ON A MAJOR LABEL?
Katie: “It definitely helps new artists to get out there and have that support for your music to be heard because you don’t really get that any other way these days.”
Colin: “It’s a real privilege to be able to wake up every day and all I need to think about is writing a song or playing a gig or making an album. It’s amazing. If it all fell through tomorrow I would never be bitter about it. There’s definitely an element of luck but if you put in the work and you do your time slogging around and playing gigs, you will get seen by these people. There’s a misconception that it’s an impossible dream. To get to the stage of actually signing a record contract is pretty tough, but you just have to put in the effort to get heard.”
Barrie: “The best perk for me is getting free Jack Daniel’s and free dinners. They’re not really perks, it’s more superficial, self-satisfactory enjoyments, small stuff. It’s the kill-with-kindness syndrome. It’s a bit like, ‘We’ll butter your bread but you better make sure you eat it properly’.”
AND THE CONS?
Colin: “It has been a pretty slow process. For a long time it seems like nothing is getting done and you are sitting waiting then all of a sudden there’ll be a two-week burst of activity and loads of things will happen. With making the album, the writing process was about two years and I was itching, but people kept saying ‘take your time, there’s no rush, just write and write until you get to the point you have more songs than you know what to do with.’ That was really good advice – it was literally the opposite to what I thought.”
Katie: “The downside is you have to pay back all this money.”
Barrie: “You get to witness the dark underbelly of how being signed works. It’s just another world. You could describe it as hell or heaven.”
Pearl And The Puppets – Make Me Smile
The Boy Who Trapped The Sun – Stick Around
March 6, King Tut’s, Glasgow (supporting Lisa Mitchell) (tickets)
March 16, Captain’s Rest, Glasgow (tickets)
April 3, Pivo Pivo, Glasgow (Hinterland) (tickets)
April 9, Academy, Glasgow (supporting John Butler Trio) (tickets)
Kassidy – Beautiful Girl, Beautiful World
May 8, Darvel Town Hall, Ayrshire (tickets)