Of the Benefits of Crisis

There is an important question that should cross the mind of anyone who makes a departure from a particular career after a significant amount of your life has been given to it: Have I just avoided a mid-life crisis, or am I heading towards one? I had this thought last night, a bit drunk, while smoking and looking at the stars as usual. I should request here that those who say that 31 is hardly ‘mid-life’ to put semantics aside for the purposes of this article… you get my meaning.

A few months ago I finally left employment at the bank I had worked at for about ten years. It was a job that I had originally taken as an agency worker in my very early twenties after dramatically leaving my job at a pub due to differences in opinion (I thought the landlady was a nosy drunk, she didn’t). Before working at the pub I had been placed in several factory/warehouse jobs by agencies, so this time I wanted to try something that a) required greater use of my brain, and b) had somewhere to sit. So I decided to try and get a job in an office. At the time I had no inkling that I could turn my skills as a musician into a paying enterprise, and writing was still just an occasional hobby. I just wanted some money so that I could live for a bit and see what happened. The agency took some persuading, usually when I asked for office work they would nod, stare blankly, tell me that they would have a look, and then send me to a factory in the meantime. But eventually I got in at Britannia Building Society in Leek and was able to don my old school black trousers and shoes (literally, that’s not a fashion comment), pull on an ill-fitting work shirt (having fluctuated in weight by two stones since I had last bought any) and head to my new office job where they had computers and everything.

For the first two months I was put in a documents store room and spent all day on my feet filing miscellaneous paperwork into mortgage deeds. We had one chair between three of us, no windows and no supervision. It was just like being at a factory again, but eventually, after what seemed to be some kind of sadistic trial period, they let me upstairs to hit keys on computers and move paper around. They soon found, as did I, that I’m quite good at hitting keys on computers and moving bits of paper around. I was also quite good at telling other people what keys to hit and where the paper needed to be moved to, so I moved relatively quickly into a job where I helped to figure out what keys needed pressing, and even designed some of the bits of paper that got moved around.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, in fact, I pretty much hated it. I even grew to miss the honesty of putting cups in boxes, because it was a clear and distinct task that had some merit and needed doing. Most of the work at the bank, especially when I got involved in projects, was reactionary and unnecessary. It could have been done by the computers if they would just spend the time and money. But apart from that, it was just so damn false and I quickly learned how much emphasis was put on advertising and internal propaganda. They wanted us to whistle while we worked (not literally), to be ‘on-board’ and ‘with the programme’ – we were quite often told that if we didn’t agree with the bank’s ‘values’ we should leave (all very well and good coming from an exec who pockets over a million pounds each year… it’s easy to hold values with that kind of incentive). But I persevered, I panicked but did nothing, I threw my efforts outside of work into a relationship which eventually broke down, and then I had my first quarter life crisis.

I say a quarter life crisis because I must have been 25 at the time, so although it’s unlikely I will see 100, again, you get the meaning. As I found myself moving back home, a shadow of a possible life left behind me, I laid a lot of blame at the feet of my job. I had thrown myself into work, going for interviews, moving up the ladder slightly, bringing home the pay and bonuses. I had convinced myself that was what was required when I moved in with my girlfriend. I had a household to support etc… all that protestant work ethic crap which was somehow engrained in me (and still is to an extent – it’s that feeling of guilt you get when not being productive). But it made me unhappy, creatively starved and frustrated. That probably wasn’t the reason the relationship ended, but my retrospection found it the easiest thing to target as something I could do something about. I couldn’t do anything about the failed relationship, that was over, and I was determined not to slide into self-pity and destruction (I had done that before and it wasn’t pretty for a while). So I took the big, bold step of… going part-time. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was determined to carve out some space to figure out what I wanted to do. As quite often happens when you come out of a situation, I rediscovered a lot of my friends were still there, waiting to be supportive (I’m very lucky in that respect), and things started to happen. I moved to Leek with a friend and we set up a music production business, I got involved in organising events, I restarted my education with the open university and started to write, I lived by myself for a year (everyone should try it), I got engaged, I joined a band, I moved in with my fiancé, and then, last of all, after ten years of waiting for the right moment, I gave up the day job.

That was three months ago now. February 2013. Throughout all the changes I had continued to work for the bank, partly because I still didn’t have the confidence to give it up, but mainly because for the last three years there was the possibility of redundancy and walking away with a reasonable sum of money (due to the take-over by wool-clad wolf, the Co-op – see https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/ethical-alternative-my-guide-to-the-coop/). Eventually that possibility, though still hanging in the air as a remote distant chance, was denied to me. While others around me were losing jobs they wanted to keep, I couldn’t get rid of mine. I tried my best to argue the senselessness of this to the powers that be, even ending up face to face with my ‘big boss’ and telling him what I thought of the way they did things, but it didn’t make a difference. Perhaps I had showed my cards too often, threatened to leave just one too many times, because they wouldn’t cut me loose. Why would you give me money to go when I quite obviously wanted to leave anyway? That’s the corporate way. Despite all the work and energy I had given them for ten years, despite the moving of the ground from beneath our feet as one lot of corporate clowns took over the running of our lives from another bunch, that path was not open.

And so, after a few sleepless nights and the flaring up of every ailment in my mind and bodies repertoire of stress-induced warning signs, I gave it up. It was not very dramatic in the end. I told them I was going to leave, they did the paperwork, and within a couple of weeks (thanks to stored up holidays), I walked out of the building for the last time, with the sun and the chatter of open-office politics behind me. I was overwhelmed for a minute or two as I drove away, laughing tears, and then I was back to normal. I waited a few weeks for the reality to kick in, but it already had. All I had now was what I made of it, all I have now is what I make of it.

So the point of this blog is, have I just gone avoided a mid-life crisis or am I walking straight into one? And I hope to make this appraisal global enough for this blog to be of value to anyone else reading who has or might be thinking the same thing, otherwise I’d just be sharing with you chapters from my life, which is not my intention.

One of my nightmares as a teenager was ending up like ‘Ernold Same’, the eponymous character from the Blur song over which Ken Livingstone drones this monologue:

Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed at the same time
Looked in the same mirror
Made the same frown
And felt the same way he did every day,
Then Ernold Same caught the same train
At the same station, sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to him the same old what’s his name
On his way to the same place to do the same thing
Again and again, poor old Ernold Same.

– ‘Ernold Same’, Blur.(The Great Escape, 1995)

                So if turning away from a day job at a bank, in which I sat in the same chair, next to the same people, doing the same things, again and again, the same drive to work, the same canteen, the same coffee machine, the same pot plants, the same meetings, the same screens, the same problems and the same solutions, the same frustrations, the same politics, the same building, has made me a little less like Ernold Same, and a crisis that is, then a crisis is certainly a good thing and I would urge anyone considering having one to go for it.

If on the other hand, the crisis is forthcoming, and this is a temporary stop-gap where everyday my work is what I make it, be it writing music for high-street companies, writing stories, writing scripts, writing scores for original films, writing blogs, or whatever else I choose to do, then what a crisis the next one will be! Is it possible that one crisis will cancel out another and I could end up back at a desk in an office? Not if I have anything to do with it, not unless the work that takes place in that office is  creative and/or for the benefit of those who need it (the moral-void of bank work is a strong motivator to express yourself and help others). So now, as a fledgling self-employed person, with all the uncertainty that brings, not knowing if the last paid job was literally my last paid job, having to try and pick my opportunities from everything I am capable of and convince others of that capability, a crisis would surely be a good development. I mean, the last two crises I’ve had started my desire to educate myself further and produce original work, and have given me the opportunity to do so. What will be next? So far, I’ve had only net gain from crises, the only thing that was ever holding me back was not instigating one in the first place.

I say, if you are heading towards a crisis, at whatever stage in your life, bring it on! It is a creative act and we are creative creatures. It is decision and action, and those are attributes we are blessed with. Aristotle said that our capacity for reason was the objective of human-life, and that only aiming for mere survival like plants and beasts is to not fulfil our humanity. So let’s not be plants, not just now, maybe another life-time if you believe in that kind of thing, but not now. Let’s greet crisis with open arms, because it means something is about to change, and change is the only way we can create (there was only ever one truly creative act in this Universe, and no one really knows how that came about, we just work with what we’ve got).

So in answer to my own question, I think I have both gone through a crisis, and am heading towards my next one, and I hope that is always the case.  For others, and I do not mean to undermine the choices people make, some people genuinely do want to work for a bank or other such industries and that’s fine (though I wager most people don’t), but if you are becoming a bit ‘samey’ and you wonder where that feeling of wasted time and senselessness is coming from and what, if anything, you can do about it, instigate a crisis of your own. So far, the evidence tells me, they can be very good things, if you have control (which of course we all do, though it may not seem that way). There is a fundamental truth in here somewhere, even if the crisis comes to you and seems negative, there is nothing you can do about the past, there is only how we choose to appraise and move on from it to the future by choosing the present moment by moment. That is not a wishy-washy, motivational sound-bite, it is just a statement of fact. I certainly don’t feel that I have ‘made it’ yet, and the anxiety of self-employment is a formidable foe (this article is just one round in the fight against it), but I’m definitely on the right ladder now, which is a start.

We have such faith in you that we want your money.

Last week my band ‘Gravity Dave’ was approached by yet another ‘Artist Development’ company through our Facebook page. Up popped a message from ‘Sweet Home’* music in our inbox telling us that:

“I listened to your tunes and I really like them! What are your plans this year? – Bob.*”

At last! Thought we. This seems like a music company taking interest in what we do after all the hard work we put into writing, rehearsing and performing our original songs, at our own expense, regardless of the overwhelming odds against us. So with excited fingers, we thank the mysterious yet tantalising admirer, and tell them that naturally (being a band and all) our plan is to record and have more gigs, you know that kind of thing, the thing that bands do. He replies (ever so quickly and efficiently):

“We might be able to help you with that guys, you should come up for a chat.”

A chat! A chat! With a real life music company! A chat? Us? Why, dreams really do come true. We knew it was only a matter of time, and faithfully, time has delivered to us the prize we sought.

But hang on, we say, steadying ourselves and desperately trying to suppress the bubbling excitement that has us wide eyed and gripped with anticipation; maybe we should just check, and be sure, as we don’t really know who these guys are yet. It’s just a precaution of course, sure it won’t make a difference. They’ve already told us how much they like our tunes and that they want to ‘chat’, but just in case…

“Can you let us know what you can offer us?” we ask cautiously, not wanting to put our heads so far down this gift horse’s mouth that they may be bitten off. But it was ok (phew!), Bob was obviously keen not to let us wander down the path of uncertainty, and obligingly and quickly answered our query:

“We can help you match up to industry expectations! Every band wants better gigs and more exposure, but there is a way of doing it…”

He’s right you know! This guy must know his stuff. Every band does want better gigs and a wider audience. Damn those industry expectations, even though he thinks we are good, we obviously mustn’t be the right kind of ‘good’ for the industry. Thank the God of Rock that these people got to us in time to tell us this. Only one more little question to ask and then we can start down the path to enlightenment, leaving fear and uncertainty behind.

“Will it cost us anything?” we ask, almost jokingly, because by this point we’ve checked out the website, and the ‘artist development’ spiel doesn’t mention costs or services, it is a selective process that only the acts they want to work with are offered. They solicit acts to ‘send in’ mp3s for consideration. But in our case (cos we’re special) – they’ve come to us. A Brucey bonus of epic scale. We eagerly await Bob’s reply, a mere formality of prudence we are sure, but still. And then he tells us, with dream shattering clarity:

“Ha ha ha! Lol. We’re not a charity for musicians! But we make bands what they need to be at an affordable rate.”

At this point, I will drop the sarcastic appraisal of this conversation. We never really expected anything different, having had our time wasted by a similar company in the past who ‘liked our tunes’ and ‘wanted to chat about being on their exclusive development label’. We wasted a whole afternoon travelling to their studio and being told that they could produce our music, from the bottom up, reworking our songs, adding production, making them ‘fit’ the industry and then promoting them to all the ‘right’ people and radio stations (BBC Nottingham no less! How could we refuse?). They paid us vague compliments which didn’t specify any particular tune they liked or anything about it. They looked and sounded like they were making this speech for the hundredth time that week. In short, they finished their pitch, and at the end, when they asked us if we had any questions, we asked the same thing… “Will it cost us anything?”.

Guess what? It would have. I can’t quite remember now, but it was around £1000. That included the recording of three songs (with massively intrusive production methods to re-work them and add ‘strings’ and ‘horns’) and then some vague talk of promotion, of which only BBC Nottingham Radio was actually mentioned. As we drove back, having thanked them for their time and promising to let them know what we thought of the ‘deal’, it dawned on us that they weren’t really a well-known promotion/recording company. That they didn’t really like (or probably even listen) to our tunes… they were just after our money! The charlatans! They were basically just a recording studio trying to find ways of getting clients!

You might find this hard to believe, but we found that day, as we did again last week, that there are people in the music-business who will basically lie and deceive to get your money from you! Who would have thought it? In such a happy and creative industry! So when Bob from ‘Sweet Home’ music was giving us the same pitch and tried to laugh off our genuine question regarding costs… Something inside me flipped. (this is my response verbatim…)

                “Why does your website not make it clear when asking acts to contact you with their tunes for consideration that they will end up paying? It’s not really ‘consideration’ when you are charging bands… It is just basically a recording studio under a different name trying to make out that they are offering an ‘exclusive’ service, rather than presenting costs up front. We’ve had this before from other such studios that tried to convince us they heard something ‘special’ in our music and then wanted £500-£1000 to develop it. It’s a shame that this sector of the industry is turning in on itself for revenue, rather than looking to audiences. We are okay thanks. If you really felt we were worth it, you would take some risk with the costs and negotiate a share of the resulting revenue. If you want to not seem like you are fleecing people, maybe mention the costs in the first approach rather than wasting time calling meetings and making it out like the acts has been chosen, when really it is just another potential customer. Good luck, but I don’t think your business model will be the one that cuts it in the new digital age.”

He didn’t like that. This is an interpretation of his response:

“Thanks but your attitude is wrong. Everyone needs to put food on the table.”

Food on the table? Food on the table?! He wants to dupe us into using his companies recording studio under the guise of some vague promotional activities, as if it was exclusive, and he thinks that putting ‘food on the table’ is a valid excuse? These guys own a recording studio. We know that if we want to record in such a facility it will costs us money. That is a service. A service is a service, end of. It is not an exclusive offer or opportunity. It is money changing hands for an agreed itemised service. Why all the cloak and dagger, vague compliments, offer of chats, no mention of money on the website?!! I retort:

“Just be up front with the fact that you charge people and it wouldn’t be an issue. It’s like someone saying ‘You’re a really good guitarist and I’m a talent scout – all you need to do is pay me £500 and I’ll make you even better!” – it doesn’t make sense. It’s a pitch. And as a pitch, I think it’s a bit of a sneaky one. – I’m a self-employed composer and writer outside of this band, so I know about ‘having to eat’ but I still have to go after genuine projects and am constantly dodging people who want money from you to achieve ‘success’ so I believe my attitude is one of logical self-preservation and I will be advising everyone I can not to get wound up in these dubious schemes. Golden rule – if someone is asking you for money while promising success, it is they who have the wrong attitude. Been the same for time immemorial. You’re not the first to make almost exactly the same pitch to us so we’ve already been burned by the ‘come along for a chat – we think you’re good and we want you on our label’ – and then finding out they also want £1000 for it! Appalling. Watchdog beckons, say hello to Anne Robinson for me.”

He liked this even less. His response, again interpreted, was:

How dare you accuse us of not running a legitimate business? We are selective with our clients but we earn enough to live on and are very good at what we do.”

That alas was where I terminated the conversation for the sake of my own sanity and constraint (the next things I said would not have been the prettiest of words). Apparently the people who ‘need to put food on the table’ were actually earning a good living. They are, they say, selective with their clients. But why would you be? If you believe that you know what the industry wants, why wouldn’t you produce the hell out of anything that comes your way if you are getting paid for it?

My regret is that I did not calm my rage and string Bob along for a while, but I was overcome by the same feeling you get when a cold-caller rings you up and starts asking you questions about your life before telling you who they are, what they are selling, and how much it costs. To summarise the thorny:

  • If you liked our tunes so much, why do you think we need ‘re-shaping’ into something the industry wants?
  • Why would we want to be ‘re-shaped’ into something the industry wants? The industry is in flux. We are the industry if we choose to be. There’s this thing called the internet, look it up.
  • Even as a pitch it is lazy. Just adding the name of one of our songs to the opening gambit may have helped. Let alone some qualification as to why they ‘liked our tunes’.
  • The website of said company is sparse, makes no mention of costs and gives a strong impression of exclusive deals being brokered if you are chosen. This is just plain misleading, if not criminally so. (I’ve emailed the OFT about the general status of these companies – if they reply, no doubt that will be another blog).
  • It’s  just a really, really shitty way to do business. They may not have known that the average age of my band is around 38, but for young bands, they really would have felt that surge of excitement and joy with an approach such as this. They would have gone to the meeting and been easy targets. Their parents would have picked up the bill and at the end of it, they would be just another band, with a handful of recordings and songs that have been ripped apart and rebuilt by some meddling middle men who think they know what the world wants to hear. The only difference is that they (or their parents) would be several hundred, if not thousands, pounds lighter and tensions would be high.

I researched this phenomenon a little and found that as the music industry has contracted over the last decade or so (due to the internet), the first to go were often the ‘A&R’ men. A lot of these A&R men set up recording studios with the added dimension of an attached ‘promotions company’ that could draw on their experience of the industry. The general warning is to avoid at all costs. These are the people who were first out when the traditional industry collapsed… why would you pay them to try and shape you into something that they are no longer part of? These were the bull-shitters, and they now reside in small recording studios up and down the land, ready to exploit as many musicians as possible. They’re not after success for their acts, why would they when they have no incentive? They are paid upfront for their services that are limited and temporary. They aren’t willing to risk anything on anyone, they just want your money, our money, the money from the musicians who don’t have any to start with.

And I’m sure that there are those companies out there (this may have been one) that if you pay them enough, will accordingly promote you as much as they can and may even help you to move a notch or two up the ladder of notoriety. But this is a service, and one that other companies legitimately advertise as so. If the opening message had been something along the lines of:

“Hey guys! I am from a music promotion company. We can offer you a competitive package to record and promote your music. We have listened to some of your music (I especially like the driving hooks of ‘Here we are’ and ‘Clearly Wrong’ by the way!) and think that what we offer is something that can really help just polish it up to the standard that some parts of the industry want to hear. For a full list of our services and basic costs, please visit our website or feel free to ask me anything you want. Good luck with the band, we hope you would like to work with us as we would like to work with you.”

… then at least we could have had the courtesy of saying ‘no thanks’ with full knowledge of just what the hell they were talking about. And even so, this kind of practice is attempting to re-align a failing industry to one that makes its money primarily from the artists, rather than the audience. It is negative practice, and I am aware of bands out there who have ‘paid their way’ to success of sorts, literally having hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on them to get onto TV and radio, and still aren’t that well known. It is the death throes of a dying practice that needs to disappear. So I would urge you if you are in a band yourself, or know others who are, and come across this kind of offer, to walk away with two fingers held firmly and defiantly aloft. If you must spend money, spend it on yourselves or use those companies that don’t present as one thing when they are really another. If you want to spend money on promotion, there are plenty of people lined up to take your money without pretending that you are ‘special’ and that it is ‘exclusive’ – they will simply take your money and do what they do, without the confidence tricks to get your business.

Anyway, there is surprisingly little out there on the net about such companies, and obviously I’m not going to cite the one’s mentioned, so here is a little to go on (below). Thanks for reading and please share your experiences of this with me (if you have them) in the comments below!

A good blog on some red-flags to look out for:

http://campbeit.com/blog/how-to-avoid-music-business-scams/

Another blog, read the ‘Artist Development’ section. It also does a lot to define what is and isn’t a ‘scam’, which legally, can be quite important! (I’m not saying that these companies are scammers – they are just unethical and treading a blurry line between scam and legit)

http://www.idnmusic.com/education/indie_alert_are_these_people_really_scammers.html

Of course, my band was mentioned so…

www.facebook.com/gravitydave

* The company name and contact have been changed. If there is a real company called this with a ‘Bob’ working for them, that is a coincidence and quite accidental!

Beware the peddlers of success & knowledge.

I’ve found a funny thing happens when you join the world of blogging. As with all social network sites, you start to get (quite quickly) a number of other users marking your post as a ‘favourite’ or ‘following’ your profile. This is, for the most part, quite a nice thing, especially when you get the friendly little email pop up in your inbox to say:

“Chaos Monkey thinks your blog is great! Why not check them out too?”

And so, I click on the profile, happy to reciprocate the interest that Mr Chaos Monkey has shown in my work with a quick look at his profile and latest article. Now, a lot of the time, the blogs I’m greeted with seem to be the usual content of social/political commentary, reviews, opinions, life-style tips and so on. But every now and again I will get something like:

“Chaos Monkey – How to be a success, time and time again… 3 easy steps!”

Often these articles will give advice on how to ‘optimise’ your blog, using ‘SEO’ techniques, foster good ‘time-management’ and how to spot and capitalise on ‘trends’… that kind of guff. They may even add advice on monetizing your blog with advertising partners, or by writing articles for certain websites on a range of popular subjects.

The thought struck me that these people who purport to offer the key to success by writing blogs, and only write blogs about success, must in themselves, either have been successful at something else in the past, or just be liars. To highlight this we can place the conversation in a real-world setting – say a motorway service station pre-internet days. I am casually walking from my car through the bleak concrete park towards the oblong tomb of over-priced sustenance, when a man with slick, gelled-back hair, wearing a ‘trust-me’ suit approaches…

Peddler:               Hey you!

Me:                        Me?!

Peddler:               Yes you! Do you want to know the secret to success?

Me:                        Who wouldn’t want to know the secret of success?

Peddler:               Exactly! Well, I can tell you the secret of success…

Me:                        How did you come by such knowledge?

Peddler:               Because I’m successful!

Me:                        What at?

Peddler:               Telling people  how to be successful.

Me:                        Is that it?

Peddler:               Erm… yes.

Me:                        Go away.

At least that is how I imagine it would run in the real world if indeed the success peddler was trading off the pyramid scheme of ‘selling success’. We’ve all heard it before I’m sure – there used to be (and probably still is) a postal scam, which digitized to e-bay eventually, whereby you blind ‘buy’ a package that tells you how to earn £x thousands of pounds, and when it arrives, it simply tells you to advertise and sell a package that will earn you £x thousands of pounds to other people. And thus the circle of bullshit is complete, and we can all go to the farm and smell like the animals.

But this new blog version of the scheme works slightly differently. It is costing me nothing but time when I stumble upon their ‘secrets to success’, but they are getting revenue from various other sources. My click, my precious click, is paying for them to fill the worlds servers with pointless articles. The world’s supply of bullet points, *asterisks* and CAPITAL LETTERS – not to mention EXCLAMATION MARKS!!! – is being depleted by such scammy scamsters.

And they are just one ingredient of this bitter word-soup that sloshes around our ankles in the digital bowl and is quickly rising. The other is the likes of the ‘e-how’ article. I hope for your sake, dear reader, you have never found yourself in the throes of some important research, trying desperately to find out some important info about your chosen profession, and all you can find is 200-500 word articles written by people who have no idea about the subject, clogging up your search engine like claggy gump oil. They do this for a living. There are numerous adverts that can be found that go something along the lines of:

“Do you know jack-shit about anything? Can you just about send the signals from your brain to your fingers to make them move over a keyboard and construct basic sentences? Can you read other websites and produce inferior copies of the information they contain? Then this is the job for you! For up to 0.0000015p a word you can make your living today writing for http://www.pointlesswebsitethatjustclogsuptheinternet.com!” (hint – Don’t try and follow that link… I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist. Though it really should!)

Back at the pre-internet motorway service station again, I notice a man by the dead grey steps on my way out, he has a sign with the legend… “Ask me anything!”. I am intrigued. I approach, clutching my obscenely over-priced toasty and sucking on an Amber roll-up…

Me:                        Anything?

Peddler2:            Absolutely!

Me:                        I want to know a good average word count for different age group categories in children’s literature…

Peddler2:            Certainly! One moment!

The peddler dashes into the service station, he heads straight for WH Smiths. He comes back with a children’s book about a dragon who is sad or something… He spends the next twenty minutes counting the words…

Peddler2:            Approximately 2000 words!

Me:                        But that’s just one book. I could have done that myself.

Peddler2:            That will be £50 please.

Me:                        Go away. Actually, don’t worry about it. I’ll go away. This is a weird service station.

And so, that’s what great swathes of the internet are, a soulless service station full of weirdo’s who don’t really know much about anything, but are willing to stand there pretending they do, on the off-chance that they will catch you unawares. Of course, no money needs change hands, that is provided now by the advertisers on our behalf. It is as if the internet is constructed on top of some dark and mysterious catacombs that contain a terrible word-hungry beast who demands that 10% of all content sacrifices any meaning or substance. In return for this sacrifice, the peddlers are allowed to live, but they must leave their soul as a deposit, and in their endeavours, they must gather small bits of our life-force with every pointless ‘life tip’ and ‘how to’ article that we stumble blindly onto…

Beware the peddlers of success and knowledge, for they have neither, but they will feed on yours.

How to achieve a fair and unbiased BBC News in 8 easy steps…

I’ll let you into a little writing secret of mine for articles and essay’s – always write the intro after you’ve written the piece so you can explain why it meanders so. In this piece I wanted to write about the failings of the media to fairly represent news. It becomes obvious that I am mostly referring to the BBC, as they are the only outlet in this country that purports to do this by design and in the public interest, rather than for commercial reasons. I should point out that I am quite a fan of the BBC entertainment departments, which I view as being a whole other entity to the beast of the news coverage. I must also point out that I don’t really know how to sort it all out – it’s a common theme of mine that I think it is fair enough to point out an issue and offer some critical analysis, but that it is unfair to expect any one person to have all the answers. Not liking something is a valid enough starting point but it has become a trend to rebuke criticism by saying ‘well – what is the alternative?’ and then mock the person who has raised the problem because they haven’t been able to dedicate their whole life to the issue in question. It is enough to raise a problem and to expect the people who are in an appropriate position to do something about it or explore the possibilities. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to reduce your status in relation to themselves, probably in order to maintain a status quo they are happy with. So with this in mind, please find below, after much meandering, my eight easy steps to achieving a fair and unbiased news story.

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I once caused uproar on an open-forum at my old job when I replied to a thread defending the BBC News against accusations of bias. I think I said something along the lines of:

“BBC news unbiased? Time to wake up!”

It wasn’t the most advanced of arguments but then, it wasn’t the most advanced of discussion forums. I felt I was just adding a ‘vote’ almost to that side of the debate. The forums were in general a mixture of the vacuous, the work related and the occasional thorny debating issue. The users were spread out over the country in various head offices and branches, stealing a few minutes away from work to engage their brain in something that didn’t cause it to melt quite so much as working for a bank does. So what I wasn’t expecting after adding my tiny comment to the already hefty thread, was a reply along the lines of:

“Oh, I bet you’re one of those left-wing hippy crackpot conspiracy theorists who thinks the BBC is controlled by Lizards and who wears a tin foil hat to guard against mind control by the FBI aren’t you? The BBC is the foundation of our unbiased media and democracy, you only have to look at America’s Fox network to realise how good we’ve got it.”

And in one massive, sweeping statement of ignorance, this anonymous responder felt they had destroyed not only my argument, but also my character. They had decided exactly who and what my character was by plucking it out of the stereotype bargain bucket, much favoured by the Daily Mail and most mainstream politicians. You’ve heard it before right? Attack the arguer, not the argument. Classic deflection strategy.

So accordingly, after half an hour or so of calming myself down and not writing the first thing that came into my head (which would have surely got me sacked), I formulated my response. I can’t remember it exactly but the main points were this…

* The BBC is funded by public money, designated by the government. They are at best acutely aware of this, even if they choose not to let this influence them, at worst, they let it influence them.

* It is impossible to be unbiased. Pretending to be is a waste of time. Journalists & editors for the BBC are well rewarded for their opinions, meaning that they hold a certain social and economic position of power. Again, at best they are naturally biased but make a real effort not to allow this to influence their work, and at worst, they allow this to influence their work.

* It doesn’t matter how unbiased your reporting is, unless you cover all news stories, all of the time, with equal emphasis, you are not unbiased. Someone chooses the headline. Someone chooses what time the story gets published and how quickly it moves up or down the schedule. Someone chooses to treat the opinion of a ruling government minister as a news story, even though it is not news. Someone decides which stories on the website are allowed comments. An editor highlights which comments he/she thinks are of note. Let alone the obvious stuff about someone choosing where to point a camera and what to point it at…

* By attempting to be unbiased and represent a range of views, what you end up with is a minority of extreme views at each end of the scale, totally unrepresentative of the majority of reasonable people. You may think that talking to reasonable, none extreme people about issues would be pointless for news reporting, but it is exactly the opposite! Who would you prefer to have on a jury if you had been wrongly accused of a crime? A panel of people who hold extreme and diametrically opposed views, or a panel of reasonable people who listen and asses arguments each with their own merits?

* Just look at it! Honestly, just think about it. Most of the news is pretty much just what has happened today in the world, ranked by our Western interests, but often we are presented with an opinion as a news-story with undue prominence. For example, an MP, let’s say Iain Duncan Smith, decides that his own work and welfare policy is fair. So he holds a press conference and tells them,

“You know that work and welfare policy that I devised? Well I think it’s fair. And I think that the British public agree with me. And anyone who doesn’t think it’s fair is wrong or a loony”.

Okay… he doesn’t say exactly that, but broadly, he goes on the record to reinforce what we already know – that IDS thinks he is right. Put simply… this, isn’t, news. Someone thinking they are right about something is not news, it is self promotion. So how can this kind of reporting be said to truly be an unbiased news story? At the point where a policy is announced, that is news. If a prominent figure raises an interesting objection, that is news. If 100,000 people take to the streets to reject the policy and all it stands for, that really is news. But one man, one privileged man who is already in a position of power and wealth, says that he is the bee’s knees and that we should all agree with him, and the BBC (amongst others) is there like a flash with all the publicity and PR he needs to get that message out to the malleable amongst us, who will take in the day’s headlines either as gospel truth, or as subliminal seeds for further developments. Add to this the fact that people like IDS are fond of plucking totally inaccurate figures out of the air, which are in turn broadcast far and wide by the media, before being retracted a few days later only after the impact of the lie has taken hold, regardless of the consequent truth that emerges. Shouldn’t the media be checking these things before  they print/broadcast?

All this is before I even really get hippy-lefty and point out that the media elite and the political elite are presumably very closely linked. I mean, they work together nearly every day, I would bet that many of them came through the same education system and that there is a various amount of interchanging between the two industries (that’s right, politics is an industry). I would also imagine that as the BBC and the government are essentially symbiotic, something that threatens one’s very existence would be of concern for the other, which is a disastrous premise for an unbiased media! Surely?! I’m not going mad here am I?

Like it or not, the government of the day set the news agenda for the media. In many ways this is just a literal, uncomplicated truth as obviously the news is going to report on what the government says and does. The problem is that this relationship has become extremely blurred. No doubt each major political party has a media guru amongst its ranks whose job it is to encourage and seed the most favourable and comprehensive coverage possible while mitigating and deflecting bad coverage. Surely, part of this job is deciding when and where to hold press conferences, release speeches, appear on interviews etc… all carefully balanced against a tactical media agenda.

The job of the media, our media, is to pick through this and everything else that happens in the world, and decide how to report it. My view is that this complex game being played out every day in the City is counter-intuitive to a good, functioning, free and fair democracy. It has come to the point where you will quite often hear a politician say something like,

“We need to be seen as a party that understands people’s concerns”

… or something similar (note – this is the same type of language I explored in my blog on my former employer the Co-op – linked here https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/ethical-alternative-my-guide-to-the-coop/). And what do they mean by this? They mean that they need to work harder, using the channels available (mostly the BBC news), to present a facade to us, the people, in order to secure themselves positions of great power and significant wealth within our society.

And we all know the upshot of this – even if you believe the BBC gives equal air-time and prominence to all sides of the argument, we end up with robot-like politicians appearing on interviews, repeating a pre-written sound bite over and over and over again, in the hope that it will sink in. Interviewers get frustrated, listeners and viewers equally so, but it continues regardless. At no point does somebody in the industry stand up and say:

“This is nonsense! We’re not having MPs coming on this publicly funded broadcast platform to avoid difficult questions and incessantly repeat party slogans. This isn’t a party political broadcast, so they should not be given this massively powerful tool to convey their message at their own whim and fancy!”

If only we did! Something may change. We may not get the plight of immigrants and benefit dependents smeared all over our screens every day as if they were the cause of the global financial crisis, which was actually caused by a tiny handful of very rich and very influential financial speculators. The BBC even goes as far as offering us ‘austerity’ recipes and tips on living under the breadline, you know, just in case.

So anyway, the title of this blog is ‘how to achieve a fair and unbiased BBC news in 8 easy steps, so here are my initial thoughts:

Step 1. Do not get rid of the BBC. That would be folly. That would be knocking down the house because you don’t like the wall-paper. (Just thought I’d get that one in there – that is not what I am saying here).

Step 2. Report news strictly chronologically. This often happens in a loose shape, but somehow, all those quotes from the PM and such like keep creeping to the top, even when other things have happened or continue to happen at the same time. And if a news story is falling down the ranks because other things have happened, don’t allow some party spokesman to ring in and give you a new quote about the PMs latest policy just in order to bump up the story a bit. You know they do that don’t you? I wouldn’t be surprised if they also have teams of people rating and adding comments to news stories in order to push them up the ‘most read’ and ‘most shared’ ratings… It has and does happen. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/feb/08/what-is-astroturfing)

Step 3. If a politician isn’t willing to answer a question directly, without re-framing it or avoidance techniques etc… don’t broadcast the interview at all.

Step 4. (This applies especially to the coverage of protests) – Be a bit utilitarian when deciding how to cover something. If 100,000 people are in the streets protesting, don’t concentrate on the dozen unconnected people who are smashing store windows. Do the maths. It is totally unrepresentative and the BBC do it all the time, which funnily enough has the net effect of putting people off protesting and portraying the legitimate protestors in a bad light. Exactly what you would expect the government to do if they were in charge of broadcasting, right?

Step 5. When a reporter accuses a man in a wheelchair of ‘rolling aggressively’ towards police after he has just been assaulted by the police – sack the reporter and make sure he never works in the media again. (I am of course referring to this travesty of reporting, covered here in a typically unapologetic BBC editors blog)http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2010/12/interview_with_jody_mcintyre.html

Step 6. Don’t have a chairman who has business interest aligned with that of the ruling political elite and private industries… say for example the privatisation of the NHS which is being blatantly ignored by the BBC. It has been suggested that this may have to do with Lord Patten and his private business interest? Surely not? Not in a free and fair democratic institution! http://socialinvestigations.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/lord-patten-of-barnes-bridgepoint-and.html

Step 7. Ask some frigging challenging questions! Where is the investigative journalism into the financial crisis? Or the links between Tory MPs and private health-care companies? Or the concerns of the many who believe that the ‘deficit’ and ‘austerity’ are cover for an elitist asset-grab? You can label us all loony conspiracy theorists instead if you want, I suppose that’s just easier and doesn’t upset the status quo. So just keep ignoring the swelling presence of the alternative news channels on the internet. I’m sure just ignoring the growing and more challenging public media is the right strategy guys, I’m sure it will all just go away.

Step 8 – Use your own lexicon! If the government decides to re-brand ‘public sector cuts’ as ‘public sector savings’, don’t just wag your tail and do it! I’ve noticed this  trend in recent years. The difference between ‘cuts’ and ‘savings’ is psychologically significant and we shouldn’t tolerate language being used as a surreptitious device to positively spin negative issues. Basically, don’t just read the bloody press release verbatim – use your own language and say it how it is, not how you’ve been told too.

So that’s my starting eight. I can’t think of anymore right now, but this should be enough to get us started. If you think of anymore, please leave them as a comment below!

Just to pre-suppose challenges, as I know some people literally *love* the BBC News, I will say that I believe most journalists and editors are probably genuine and doing a good job, but as always, it is probably the few well-placed and unscrupulous types that cause the damage, plus a cosy institutionalised attitude fostered over generations of privileged access to these kind of jobs. Also, in relation to the alternative of a news channel like ‘Fox’ in America – At least you know when you are watching Fox that they have opinions, no matter how insane! At least they don’t pretend to be mindless automata, without a point of view or an agenda. At least they aren’t pretending not to be biased! If you don’t like it, you can watch another news network and it isn’t funded solely by public money! Worry more about the monsters you can’t see, the ones that aren’t hiding in plain sight. They are the ones we really  need to worry about.

Anyway, I’m off to put my tin-hat on and hunt some lizard people with Elvis and my hippy brethren on the moon. If you think any of this is just a little too kooky and conspiratorial for you – that’s fine, because the world is in great shape and obviously we have no problems and nothing to worry about. There is no inequality, no dubious wars, no unnecessary hunger and death, and no one getting rich in the process. I’m obviously just worrying for no reason and it can all be sorted by voting from some rich white bloke in a suit every 4-5 years. My bad. Sorry.

Some links to highlight some of my points…

Ed Milipede caught in a time loop: (see step 3)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZtVm8wtyFI

MPs linked to NHS privatisation: (both sides – yes, they are all at it)

http://socialinvestigations.blogspot.co.uk/p/mps-with-or-had-financial-links-to.html

Live music is alive in Leek

This bank holiday I had the pleasure of attending and performing at ‘The Situation’s Big May Birthday’ event held at the Foxlowe arts centre in Leek.

For those not local or aware of those words what I have just said, ‘The Situation’ is a live music promotion group based in Leek, spearheaded by Simon Edwards and Steve Hamersley. The ‘Foxlowe’ is a beautiful 18th Century manor-house type thing (note the precise architectural analysis here…?) which was remodelled in the early 20th Century and is a grade II listed building. Leek is a small market town in the Staffordshire Moorlands at the foot of the peak district.

So, now you know what I’m talking about, I can take each in turn. ‘The Situation’ have been going for several years now, hosting regular events at various venues, always pushing to get live and original music back into people’s social schedule. I first played one of their nights around four years ago at the now closed ‘White Swan’ (a beautiful old building with a great function hall, which has alas been sold to Wetherspoons so they can come in and leech as much character and personality from the building and surrounding area as possible, but that’s another story) with my former band ‘sMelt’, and as I remember, it was well attended and a great night was had by all. Since then, like all ventures, they have had their fair share of challenges, from poor attendance, to sound set-up, to venues being closed etc… but they have relentlessly continued building up their name and reputation, seeking out new bands and civilizations, and going boldly where no local promotion company has gone before. Excuse me, went a bit Trek then.

Well last Sunday’s ‘birthday bash’, featuring 19 acts in 12 hours over three stages, I think, was their defining moment so far. The culmination of their persistence and passion to get things moving, the day was well ran, well attended, showcased a dazzling array of local, national and even international  bands (some Canadians in the form of Fist City added this element) and the sound was spot on. I will briefly mention that the weather was also beautiful, which is fortuitous, but I don’t think Simon and Steve can take credit for that unless they have fostered some secret mad shamanistic skills I’m not aware of. They had the excellent idea of setting up two stages at each end of the main hall so that as one band played, the other set up, keeping the day on schedule, punchy and joined up throughout. In the early stages they kept it to acoustic acts set up outside on the Foxlowe’s beautiful exterior patio and grounds which gave the early audience chance to settle in, relax, and break themselves into a day that picked up pace from about 4pm onwards with the onset of the ‘ping pong’ bands in the main room stages.

So yes, this was a good day for live music and a good day for Leek. I’m unqualified really to review the acts, I’m a musician not a reviewer, but it was an eclectic mix, ranging from the angelic tones of acoustic act Dominic Morgan (a young local lad who plays everywhere he can – he has an amazing work ethic and voice, he will go far) to the femme punk catchy-bastard sounds of ‘Hooker’, the excellent and raucous ‘Fist City’ (with their army of tiny supporters), the prog-folk Strauss & Strauss ( I think I just invented that genre?), and of course, my band Gravity Dave. Not to mention the excellent Gasoline Thrills, The Downloads, Vertigo Fish, Health Junkies and all the other brilliant bands that dominated the day with new, live and original music.

In a Kevin Costner moment, Steve & Simon told me, “If you build it, they will come”, which has been their philosophy from the outset and is now paying dividends. All I could see was happy faces, all I could hear was new and exciting music, and they had a good few titanic real-ales on to boot, which is always a good thing. So well done one and all. It can be done and it has been.

It makes sense because in Leek there seems to be a disproportionate amount of bands and artists for the size of the place, and thankfully, a similarly disproportionate number of pubs, several of which are capable of hosting live music. However, the scourge of cover bands tends to make up the larger part of local music, and there is a whole section of Leek (the Market place) which at night is turned over to a weird kind of mini city-centre bar/club life, inhabited by many fighty and shouty people, shepherded and watched over by the best part of the moorlands police force each Friday and Saturday night. I should add here, that the ‘Foxlowe’ used to be one such venue under the guise ‘The V Bar’ – which was noted for its sticky carpets, crap music and fighting. Since then, it has been bought by a community group who have turned it into the most excellent arts centre, cafe and venue, demonstrating that it can be done, communities can reclaim their culture from the lowest common denominator. Which is why it needs the rest of us (I would argue, the vast majority of) none shouty-fighty people to organise and attend nights like this. Unfortunately, venues are being lost and Leek suffers from a lack of transport links and accommodation to open it up as a regular night-spot for live music lovers. Some of the accommodation may soon be answered by the development of  a Premier Inn, unfortunately at the loss of yet another old, vast and interesting building (The Talbot), but at least it could make Leek a weekend destination, and if it does, I think live music should be at the forefront of its tourism trade, along with its excellent artisan and independent shops, markets and real ale pubs. There is even talk of the train lines re-opening, linking it to Stoke station, and therefore the rest of the country, which economically would put Leek back on the map. Fingers crossed the council don’t  mess it up.

I’ve also had the pleasure of being involved in an annual music-festival in Leek, ‘Leek Summer Jam’ which has ran for four years and played host to thousands of guests, hundreds of acts and generated income for dozens of local businesses. We’re having a year off this year while we decide what to do next, but it makes me breathe easy knowing that that there are guys like ‘The Situation’ still keeping the flag flying for live music and arts in Leek, and the country – many of the bands playing on Sunday were from all over the country, including Manchester and London, so as the words gets out, the ethos of Leek’s love for live music should spread across the UK, and who knows, maybe the world! (well there was that Canadian band… and an Irish chap…)

So I’ll sign off now after having the pleasure of writing a positive article about something well conceived, well executed, and of real value to the culture of Staffordshire and the country in general.

Links:

The Situation FB Page. You should find all the info you need about the bands mentioned and links:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Situation/113561162062815

The Foxlowe website:

http://www.foxloweartscentre.org.uk/

Leek arts festival website (ongoing throughout May – but this kind of event would have happened either way, still, check out what’s on):

http://leekartsfestival.co.uk/

And of course, my band’s website:

www.facebook.com/gravitydave

All the acts:

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