Monday, 28 May 2012

Writers News and Bar-room Blues

Something positive to start the week from Writer's News/Writing Magazine. Thoroughly recommended for any author looking for competitions, tips, and gudiance on the maze (or minefield) of writing and publishing. And in this case, for giving a debut author some highly valued column inches in a national magazine.

Click for more info about Writing Magazine & thanks to Tina Jackson at Writer's News.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers: Running Down a Dream

A four hour documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I thought the TV guide had misprinted. Nothing against the band, I’d always liked the sound they made coming out of the radio and an old friend had introduced me to songs like Refugee and Here Comes My Girl in the early 80s. I’d even seen them live – supporting and backing Dylan in 1987 (have to say I remember it more for a scary walk home the night of the great storm than a Wembley Arena show with bad tickets) All the same, a four hour music doc is a tough ask even for an avid TP fan – for someone who never bought a Tom Petty record, you’d think it way above and beyond. Not so.

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich (Last Picture Show, Paper Moon) and released in 2007, TomPetty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream showed exactly why this is a band who have outlasted virtually all their contemporaries. It’s more than a collection of great shirts, ace songs, judicious use of Rickenbacker guitars, and a cast list taking in Dylan, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Johnny Depp, George Harrison (I could go on, but you get the picture). What kept me hooked until the end was watching Petty’s singular vision take on all-comers. As Heartbreakers’ keyboard player Benmont Tench says, “He takes no shit.” This is a man who took on his record company on more than one occasion and won, who has fought for what he wanted for himself and his band and came out on top pretty much every time.

What really sold the film was that Petty also has that Dylanesque instinct for music biz bullshit. It’s summed up in a short sequence at around 2hrs 50mins. Captioned The Bottom Line, it sees Roger McGuinn, former Byrds front man and an old friend of Petty’s, making an album. At the time (around 1990) McGuinn hadn’t made a record in a while and his record company had given him the songs they wanted him to record for the album. McGuinn, visibly low on confidence had invited Petty down to sing.

In the studio’s control room are: Tom Petty (TP), Roger McGuinn (RM), and a couple of record company A&R guys (A&R1 and A&R2). This is what happens (italics are real time footage, non-italics are contemporary cuts):

TP: (looking at the lyric sheet) I really don’t see you’re gonna make much out of this. I’d rather hear him sing anything else.
(TP: The song was terrible, it wasn’t a song he wrote. And I was very suspicious as to why he was being encouraged to record material like this.)

TP: It sounds very commercial, like planned commercial. (Reads lyric) “Gonna love you, gonna need you, this time I’ve got both feet on the ground.” I could smoke a joint and come up with three better lines than that. (to A&R1) You could too. “Gotta hold on, it won’t be long…”

A&R1: It’s simple.

TP: This is the man that sang Turn, Turn, Turn. Let’s go get him a fuckin’ song.

A&R 1&2: Laugh nervously.

TP: Y’know this is a great man sittin’ here, that’s done great things and these guys (the song’s writers) are just students of what he’s done. I don’t think that’s what he should sing.

(TP: The A&R guy, the guy from the record company seemed awfully young to me. I don’t think he understood the depth of the artist he was working with.)

TP: Sorry, Rog, I just can’t –

RM: No I appreciate it.

TP: I can’t hold it any longer … I love you too much I can’t see you get fucked around—

RM: You’re doing what you’re doing, that’s great.

A&R1: We’re not trying to fuck him around.

TP: You’re not trying to fuck him around, but you are if you make him do this song. Y’know, sometime the commercial road, thinking that’s the road to take isn’t always the road to take. Sometimes doing stuff from your heart and being really honest with people works much better.

A&R1: Well let’s change the lyrics.

TP: Why don’t you just get him a song.

A&R1: Let’s change some lyrics. The music’s good.

TP: What are you getting a kickback on this? I mean, this is a bad song. Get another song. Have you got the publishing on this or something?

A&R1: I don’t have anything.

TP: Yeah you do, you got two points.

A&R1: I do not.

TP: Ah, don’t bullshit me.

A&R1: Those days of the record business have long been over.

TP: Yeah, and so’s payola. This is just perpetrating the depth of shit we’re in with pop music.

RM: You think it’s a sell-out right?

TP: Yeah.

A&R1: I knew when I heard it, some people might think that.

TP: Then it’s not worth doing.

RM: I can say I’m not that crazy about it either.

(TP: They were trying to make the artist into something he wasn’t in order to sell him a certain way. And in truth they’d have been better off letting him do what he did naturally and, to his credit, he didn’t do the song.  

RM: He was like my hero, like he was standing up to these guys and I was being a little too passive. I was - I’ll do what the producer wants, what the company wants, go along with the flow not to make trouble.

TP: I went home thinking, I’ve never done that in a session, I was really outta line.

RM: Tom was right, it was my album and my name was going on it. Who was gonna know who these guys were and why they wanted that song on there?)

I went into HMV yesterday and bought a copy of Damn The Torpedoes It sounds great, really great.

Tom Petty andThe Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream is available to view on BBC iplayer for the next week or so.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Frank's Wild Years: Back on the Road

This Saturday sees a return to the northern leg of the book tour. The Frank’s Wild Years flag will be planted in Doncaster Waterstones from 11am (Leeds likewise on Saturday 19th May).

As authors, increasingly aware in a crowded market that writing, publishing and promoting a book are only half the story, the need to project a ‘brand’ has become something of a pre-occupation. In many ways this flies against creative instincts: focus should be on the work; art is art and marketing and sales are someone else’s job. Not so, you’re involved. And when it takes you into the high street, you’re on your own.

Herein lies a contradiction: if you’re brand is anti-brand and your image is an honest one, the thought of selling yourself brings to mind bullshit merchants like Stuart Baggs – ‘The Brand’  (Apprentice, Season 6): "I’m not a one-trickpony, I’m not a 10-trick pony, I have a whole field of ponies – and they’re literally all running towards this job." As if Alan Partridge had been hired as script editor and the brand in question is needy, Thatcherite lunkhead.

So how do you place yourself? You think you’ve got a good book, and so do most of the people who’ve read it. How do you translate that into selling to strangers on Saturday mornings? I don’t have all the answers by a long stretch, but in anticipation of one day achieving ‘the perfect signing’, here are some observations from the story so far:

1.       Leave your expectations at the door. You can do all the local press and radio you like; the shop may even print out a sheet of A4 with your name on it and sellotape it to the window half an hour before you get there – with all this advance publicity, surely people will come. This is no baseball movie. Chances are you’ll need to sniff out potential buyers in-store like a truffle pig on caffeine swill. The reading public want your book, they just don’t know it yet. So …

2.       Prepare your pitch. This doesn’t mean take a tent and hide in it for three hours, emerging like an angry badger to sign a book once in a while. It means having a pretty good idea what you’re going to say. Script it if necessary. After all, this is a performance. For me, selling a book whose soul is in a few square miles of South East London was not a great opener in Yorkshire. Kicking off with ‘What kind of (in my case crime) fiction do you like?’ works better. Just chat. You know they’ll love the book if they read it.

3.       Some people just want to browse. It’s Saturday morning, your free time is for shopping and meeting friends and that other stuff non-freelancers do on weekends. You’ve nipped into Waterstones for a quiet twenty-minutes noodling around the shelves. Then some sales-hungry tart of an author catches your eye and asks for a minute of your time. Answer: ‘Go away I’m browsing.’  It’s going to happen, sometimes rudely. Get used to it. Not every punter is Clarence Beeks.

Clarence Beeks - not a very nice man

4.       Try to ensure you’re not signing in competition – tricky one this, having the author of a BBC Radio 4 book of the week sitting across the other side of a very small store at the same time as you’re trying to hustle punters into buying your book is, in contemporary management speak, a pain in the arse. Truth is, this kind of setback is going to happen. How do you handle it? Smile like you mean it, work it and sell more!

5.       And finally, this is your book, your opportunity. If it’s a slow day, if you’ve worked your arse off, if your jaw positively aches from smiling (like you mean it), if your pitch sounds like it’s wearing thinner than a Primark vest, none of this should be allowed to reflect on you or your book. Stay positive, defiantly positive if needs be. And if all else fails, just ask yourself, what would Mark E Smith do?

What would Mark E Smith do?

Okay, maybe not.