Death Of An Unsigned Band

This article is for every person that has ever toured Britain's dingiest pubs, never been called back by a record company and lived the life of an unsigned band.
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The scene is Deptford – rarely a promising way to start a story – at a dingy little indie club in 2000, i.e. pre MySpace, iTunes, built-in CD burners and (for still alarmingly many) the internet in general. The veteran of an already life-questioning eight unsigned bands, I had recently performed what I naively imagined was a nimble queue-jumping exercise: I joined a band who were already signed. “I’ll be famous by Christmas,” I told long-suffering friends and former colleagues, turning down offers of gig tickets six months hence as “I’ll be on the guest list by then”, and cheerfully borrowing a further £5k from the bank because, of course, “I’ll be able to pay it back with my royalties within the year.”

I acquainted myself with the signed band in question (an amiable bunch of nobodies rather like myself whose only distinction from the herd of great-unwashed from whom I had just ascended was slightly trendier trousers) and began to throw my weight around, insisting we play an “under the radar” show at the dingy Deptford indie club to warm up for hopefully a more impressive schedule of coming engagements: festivals, major support tours, etc. It was backstage before this momentous performance that the manager, a vastly unpleasant man whose name escapes me, uttered a collection of words that I’ll probably always remember.

“Can’t believe you’ve insisted on doing this fuckin’ show, man. What an ‘unsigned band’ thing to do.” I blinked and politely asked him what the hell his problem was. “You,” he replied. “You’re still thinking like an unsigned band. Signed bands don’t play places like this. You gotta think bigger, man. That’s the trouble with unsigned bands. They’re so busy feeling dejected, they never see the larger picture.” I feebly muttered that they’d probably widen their viewfinder if only someone would give them a chance. “See?” he cackled, grinning heartlessly at my new bandmates. “Woe is fuckin’ me.”

Shelving an impulse to introduce my drumsticks to his nostrils, I soldiered on through another 12 months of signed bliss before the record label (who aren’t around any more either) decided it could rub along without us. But the manager’s words, irritating though they were, lingered. Was he actually correct? Was a band’s chances of acquiring a deal all down to their vision, attitude and behaviour, rather than the quality of their music? Were some bands biologically destined to remain unsigned forever, no matter what, in the same way that a woodlouse will never become a butterfly? And by the same token, were some groups – Muse, Radiohead, Coldplay – to all intents and purposes “signed” from the moment they formed?

I thought about all the unsigned bands I had so far graced with my presence. There was Prankster, who took every gig thrown at us, including a talent night where we had to sing through a karaoke machine. Berkowitch, whose debut gig made the local press when someone let off a tear-gas canister in the audience. Lunatic Fringe, the funk-metal outfit who trekked down to a private gig in Cornwall, only to be barred from playing because we didn’t know any Dire Straits or Chris Rea. Feelin’ Chili (I’m not making this up, honest) who only formed so we could all get into our college summer ball for free. And how could I forget Norris On The Spot, who once played a 90-minute set in front of no-one but a tramp and a Danish horse.

Were some bands biologically destined to remain unsigned forever, no matter what, in the same way that a woodlouse will never become a butterfly?

I made up my mind. Enough tomfoolery. My next band would be different. We would sharpen our act. We would stubbornly avoid doing anything normal unsigned bands did. We would look, sound, talk and think like a group in full possession of a six-figure record deal. We would approach our music with fierce attention to commercial value, considering our niche market at all times. We’d ignore unsigned convention and record an entire album, rather than the three or four songs a demo usually contained. And we would – oh, the fucking holy grail – put a bar code on the back of the CD box. Just like in the shops. The music industry would be blown away by our professionalism and our cocksure attitude, not to mention our achingly melodic stadium-ready rock anthems, and instantly sign us for huge wads of cash. And did I succeed?

What I succeeded in doing was driving my next band to the edges of sanity with my rules, indoctrinations, ultra-fastidiousness and nigh-on despotic behaviour. I ranted and raved about punctuality, I argued about clothing, I even on one occasion scolded the singer for daring to have a cold. The predictable effect was that everyone else started going the other way, being late on purpose, wearing work clothes to gigs, getting stoned before recording sessions. To be fair, we had a bit of action – someone at Universal liked us enough to take us out for a pizza – but we failed to seal anything up before the all-important six-month mark and limped on for the next eighteen, pissing in the wind, everyone disliking me more and more as I tied myself in knots and effortlessly managed to forget what it’s all about.

Because sadly, it’s all too easy to do precisely that. Drunk with the exasperation of being continually ignored, the task of trying to interest people in your music begins to more closely resemble selling paint or holiday timeshares than it does your own thrilling art. Chancing upon, say, a passionate street musician, belting out his songs for a handful of change, can become a tearful epiphany when your major concerns are how many jiffy bags you need to buy and whether you can borrow your office paper trimmer to cut up promotional flyers. It has to be said that trying to get somewhere in music today is very different – the internet has thankfully seen to that – but basics are still the same: my band’s better than those bands, and here’s why. And the unsatisfying truth is: no-one really knows why some acts succeed and some don’t. It’s a combination of factors as complex as a those which fuel a romantic relationship. The moment you’ve thought of a rule – e.g. “Just concentrate on making the best music possible and you’ll get there eventually!” – a new band will get signed after barely writing a song and your rule will be broken forever. Only one thing is certain. No group of people understand the excruciating cocktail of frustration, confusion, boredom, dejection and total mule-headedness like those who’ve spent large amounts of time in unsigned rock bands. At the risk of sounding laughably glib, it’s a cocktail so curious that I just had to write a book about it. So… erm… I did.

Tim Thornton is the author of Death of an Unsigned Band (Jonathan Cape). Buy it here:

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