Not-Quite-There-Yet???

We’ve all heard music that’s “not-quite-there-yet” by artists who are still developing and learning their craft. Sometimes it’s even clear they’re on their way to success – but not with their present songs. Or perhaps not with their present lineup. Artists from The Beatles to Blur to The Ting Tings all had to slog around making mistakes and paying their dues before their efforts were focussed enough to match their ambitions. This doesn’t just apply to chart artists: even bands like the Fall and Velvet Underground were “not-quite-there-yet” once… Here’s an (edited) email exchange from a few months ago:

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Dear Tom,
As a man with a great deal of experience I would love to hear back from you with comments about the music of my band and if you know of any help you can offer us to get that stepping stone into the industry we all aspire to be a part of.  I, of course, appreciate you’re a busy man but any feedback or response from you would mean so much. My band’s music can be listened to via myspace.com/(addressgiven)
Thanks in advance,
Mike

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Hi Mike
Thanks for your kind words – flattery will get you everywhere. You’re clearly an ambitious and talented man, and after having looked and listened at your MySpace its clear that sooner or later you will be successful in achieving your goals because you’ve got a strong focus and a winner’s attitude.  To be honest, and I do completely understand that this is not what you want to hear right now, this isn’t (yet) the music that’s going to achieve your breakthrough. All talent requires time, experience and a few setbacks to develop to its full potential. It sounds to me like your best work is still to come.

In the early days of my own music career I once had a support band who were all cocky schoolkids who could barely play. The manager of the venue hated them so much he banned them from his pub. Four years later they were on Top Of The Pops with a number one record under the name Spandau Ballet.  You asked for feedback and my advice would be to take your present band as far as you can, learning all the way. Keep immersing yourself in new music (even the stuff you don’t like) and read the NME, Drowned In Sound and Pitchforkmedia.com every week. Even though we both know a lot of what journalists write is pure bollocks. Play the long game and always keep a private eye to your own self interest as well as that of the band. I’m sure that in due course the right way forward for you will become clear. With all good wishes

Tom Robinson

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Dear Tom,
Thankyou for getting back to me, your advice was very valuable to me and my band. I completely understand what you are saying about the fact that my current material isn’t what is going to achieve my breakthrough, I agree entirely. We are interested in taking a gap year after we have finished our Sixth Form education to really give the band a go and see how far we get, as we understand that gigging, whilst important for experience, won’t get us noticed by the ‘right people’.  Do you have any idea of the kind of approaches we should take during this year and in the near future to give us best chance of achieving our goals, or is it a very “right place at the right time” industry. Many thanks for your advice already; it’s all been taken into account.

Mike
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Cheers Mike

Guess what I mean is, at this early stage it’s actually better if you DON’T get noticed by “the right people”. A farmer shouldnt take his crops to market until they’re fully grown and ripened, otherwise they simply won’t be able to compete with the other produce on display. His crops might actually be of better quality than the stuff his neighbours are producing, but he’s got to be patient and keep nurturing them until harvest time – not try to dig em up and flog em when they’re still only half-grown. Lamacq, Virgin Records and the Glastonbury festival WILL listen to your stuff, but only once – and not for very long. Your music has to be absolutely gobsmackingly brilliant at that point. If you get their attention with anything less than your very best work, the answer will just be a straight no. If you get an answer at all.

So in your gap year keep absorbing new music from the radio and NME, MySpace and Pitchfork. And gig, gig, and gig again. Not to get the attention of the record industry but to refine your playing, your writing and your stagecraft among the people who really matter: the paying public. Video your performances, analyse the good and bad bits. Watch other bands. Nick their ideas, or learn from their mistakes. Talent takes time, and a year of hard dedicated slog will work wonders, so long as you stay open to new ideas rather than just digging the same hole deeper.

Keep writing, keep listening, keep learning, keep growing. But most of all, keep writing.

Here’s an achievable goal: by the end of 12 months why not aim to have at least 7,000 genuine MySpace friends and be drawing a regular 100+ people to every gig you play. The way to do this is simply by writing killer songs. If you get the songs right, people WILL come to your page: look at the way Detroit Social Club have taken off in the last 6 months. The size of your fanbase next summer will be the best measure of whether it’s time to make serious approaches around the industry – or else start taking up those university places and defer your Big Push till later…

That’s your uncle Tom’s advice for what it’s worth. I don’t suppose for a moment you’ll actually follow it, because you’re hungry young men in a hurry. But drop me a line again in June 2009 and let me know how you’ve got on… With all good wishes

Tom Robinson

Tom Robinson

London-based broadcaster & songwriter, born 1950. His best known songs are 2-4-6-8 Motorway, Glad To Be Gay and War Baby; he has also co-written songs with Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Dan Hartman and Manu Katché. Read More…

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