FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

I Went to the Great Escape Festival to See If I Could Get a Record Deal

I invented a fictional band, got a hair cut, armed myself with CDs, and went to the buzziest new music festival in Britain to find out if the music industry still works.
May 25, 2016, 9:00am

For the superhumans of Britain’s music industry, a yearly migration to Brighton has become a more intrinsic part of natural life than the salmon run. Record label head honchos, over-friendly music PRs, slick-talking A&R representatives, meandering journalists, colossal brands, and other industry entities flock to the seaside for the most important weekend on their working calendar: the Great Escape Festival—which is kind of like SXSW, but with bags of chips and pebbles instead of overbearing accents and self-aggrandizing tacos.

Advertisement

You see, the festival is a valhalla for new music and "buzz." So, like lap-dogs with demo CDs, promising musicians have tailed it closely, hoping to woo the gatekeepers of the music industry’s interminable bank accounts, dreaming of being signed before catching the last train home to London. Or the home counties. Or whatever geographical location they’d crawled from, desperately yearning for a mention in NME’s Radar column.

But, given that the present day music industry is reluctant to spend money on anyone that isn’t a more economically efficient model of James Bay or Jack Garratt, it’s hard to imagine how that ritual works in 2016. Do plucky young acts still get snapped up on the spot? Do indie quartets still toast away with their lives by clinking Bollinger with a large man in an ill-fitting suit? Do talented young female pop vocalists still get offered briefcases full of cash if they agree to sack their 37-year-old keyboard player immediately and go solo? Do people still go around saying things like, “Nail this show tonight and I’ll get you a co-write with Owl City, baby!”

Or is everything just a foregone conclusion these days before an artist even hits the stage? Is everything determined by Spotify metrics, Twitter followings and a willingness to sacrifice all artistic control? If so, then why is absolutely everyone in the industry here then? Don’t tell me they’ve just come to "connect."

Advertisement

With all if these thoughts in mind, I decided to conduct a little experiment. Coming from the gutter, I’d transform myself into the buzziest band Brighton’s ever seen and try to scale the walls of the music industry’s castle. Brushing shoulders with biz aristocracy, I would network, collaborate, serve spades of bullshit, have a blast, and become the face of tomorrow in the process. Surely, if the industry isn’t fucked and I play my cards right, I’d be signing a deal with one hand while spooning gak up my nose with the other. Watch the fuck out, Brighton, here comes the buzz.

The first stop? A haircut. As every artist and repertoire department knows, a well-trimmed and en-vogue coiffure is the first and most essential step to stardom. Which is the exact reason why I decided to get my hair cut at an establishment named after one of music’s hottest properties, Sean Paul. If it's good enough for the man who sang "Get Busy," it's good enough for me.

Obviously, I went in and asked for the "Sean Paul cut." The hairdresser nodded confusedly and then just gave me a haircut exactly like his own. Not to worry. This man knows the Brighton scene, and how to give the kind of barnet a soul-sucking fellow like Pete Waterman would describe as "star potential!"

Oh, and I also decided to change my name. Again, as every artist and repertoire department knows, the next most important lunge toward sudden fame is to have a glittered and detailed back-story. So, I became a new man. Montreal-born expat Herbert Meakin, who used to be “signed to Polydor” but left because it was “crushing his vibes”. Herb was looking for a company “more DIY” to share his vision and "just let him stretch his wings". That said, there’s nothing more important to Herb than his project, man.

And that project is…

The Balding Girls: your new favorite lo-fi, ambient, slinky, hyped-up, un-PC, ultra-depressed, under-dressed stars of tomorrow. According to Herb, they sound like “stomach cramps dragged backwards through a space cat.”

Once I’d changed the name on my self-important lanyard, it was time for the last side in my grand quadrilateral con: the press shot. You know, the sort of thing a record label wants circulating around the desktops and Whatsapp folders of every music writer south of Orpington by 11 AM. Then I set up a Twitter for myself and only followed Clare Balding, so that people could see I had the oddball and kooky sense of humor you expect from the social media accounts of desperate artists.

Finally, I printed as many Balding Girls CDs (or "mixtapes") as possible, scribing different artwork and titles on every compact disc. Obviously, I don't actually have any music, so around four of the fifty have the song “Rhythm of Devotion” by Sisyphus burnt on them, which really captured the space cat vibe I was going for. The rest are blank, and one day they’ll be listed on Discogs at £541.80, under the categorization of “rare groove.”

With a trans-global backstory of redemption, a press pic, and a prove success Sean Paul aesthetic, I was ready to stir the streets of Brighton. First stop? The Jubilee Library and hotel. This is the Alexandria of the industry; the center of the universe at the Great Escape. According to local legend, it’s the very place you can expect to see Mark Ronson simultaneously moonwalking and crotch-chopping. Unfortunately I hadn’t brought a guitar amp along, so I set up shop and started playing a drumbeat from my laptop, then strummed along at a whisper’s volume. If it worked for The xx then it can work for me.

“I like the band name, but I can’t quite hear you over your drums!” A lady declares.
“Then would you like a CD?” I notice the industry colours on her delegate pass.
“Can you not just play a little louder?”
“But then you wouldn’t want a CD, would you?”
“Good point.” At this point, she takes a disc and tries to hand me fifty pence. I give it back, and asks for a different kind of tip. Laughing, she mentions an industry meet-up just down the road taking place in an hour or two. Who’d have thought acting a wanker works like it did in ’93? Maybe the industry isn’t fucked after all? Maybe I’m on the cusp of champagne supernovas, Reading Festivals, and Corona sponsorships?

As the music industry meet-up crawled closer, I could smell the ink and taste the glasses of cristal and delicate hors d'oeuvres of a big money signing, so I washed it away with a taste of the proletariat to remind myself of my roots. Show time, baby.

The industry meet up kicks off alright. I arrive nice and early, set up my Balding Girls store in the corner, and soon enough it fills up. The aristocracy aren’t doing too much talking about music though. Instead, they’re fumbling over one another for free pizza and booze, and pointing passionately at their phones. A few people accept CDs, eventually, however, with one tapping the ‘Live at the Great Escape 2016’ title and saying “You got that out quick?” I nod enthusiastically.

Eventually a lady from an independent record label sits at the table. She looks at the CD and says she recognizes the name ‘The Balding Girls.’
“Are you punk?”
“Yes, why not? Would you like to sign us?” I reply.
She laughs and claims not to have the power to do that. Well who the fuck does then?

The place starts to empty, and the guests migrate to a different party for more snacks and Appletiser. I’m feeling distraught. The industry lady I invited hadn’t showed up, neither had my fans. What had I done wrong? I began to feel cold and alone. It was time for a lesson. I dawdled into Komedia, the venue next door, to get an earful of Vangelis-type experimentalists, Junk Son. Leaning over to a delegate in the audience, I ask “Why don’t people like the Balding Girls?” He replies: “The who? That’s a horrible name, mate!”

Eureka! That was it! It all seemed so simple. It wasn’t the music, the strategy, lack of devotion or support, or me as a person, it was that name. I'd pushed The Balding Girls too hard and they had clearly become old news. We missed the buzz boat and there was only one way to get back on board, before we were washed away entirely: I had to change the name. I settled on something fresh, something new, something au courant with the tapestry of alternative R&B. Meet… ‘FKA Balding Girls.’

The next morning, I woke up to success. The hangover and the nine hours of the previous days’ drinking didn’t matter much, as I’d woken up to a few tweets about FKA Balding Girls. It was all coming together nicely; today would be the day. So, like every esteemed member of the music industry, I decided to give myself the morning off.

Shortly after taking a trip on the rollercoaster that was soon to become my life, I ran into a couple of guys outside and started to tell them about my band. Within seconds, I realized how stupid I had been. I’d been so busy lobbying and trying to get people’s attention that I’d forgotten the golden rule: it's not about what you know, it’s about who you know. Turns out I was in luck though, as the guy on the left happens to be the older brother of the guitarist from the Magic Gang, who are probably the most popular group on the Brighton scene.

The Magic Gang were hosting an event at Bleach that night, and it would be at that event that FKA Balding Girls would make their name, where the contract would be signed, where dreams would be made and I would gleefully hand away twenty five years worth of rights plus merchandise to some cabal I’d only met once over avocado toast and Polish beer.

I celebrated by kicking it next to Banksy.

While preparing for the gig in a park, I noticed the jet-black leather jackets, skinny jeans, and irresponsible footwear of what looked to be a band stood nearby. And indeed, they are a band; a Hungarian group who have three slots booked to play over the weekend. Realizing that I need a drummer (and that music is about uncredited teamwork), I ask them if they’d like to collaborate at my show later. After short negotiations and a tinny each, they agree to come on stage and play percussion for me.

When I arrive, the queue is winding around the corner and it takes 40 minutes to get in. It’s everything I imagined: a youthful audience keen to have their minds blown yet ignoring the band’s on stage, industry types nursing stiff drinks at the bar and talking loudly about publishing deals. My Hungarian bandmates let me down and are nowhere to be seen—very rock n' roll—but I know this is my moment to shine. I will blow the roof off and drench Brighton in the sweet, nu-wave sound of stomach cramps dragged backwards through a space cat—the description my soon-to-be PR will pass on for the obligatory four star review of my debut album from a blog with over a thousand followers on Hype Machine.

The stage manager is pointing at his watch and shaking his head. People onstage are saying “It’s not happening.” But am I going to let that get in my way?

I jump on stage enthusiastically, and start playing lots of notes quickly in succession, chromatically. To accompany this, I whisper into the microphone at a nondescript volume. The room of chatter hushes to silence for a good 30 seconds. I have the audience in the palm of my hand.

A guy shouts, “Speak up!” I shake my head. I've got this far and I'm not going to change my sound just for you, mate. People are confused and a bit angry. Somebody eventually shouts, “Get the fuck off stage, we’re running late!” and pushes me off. And with that push, the idea of Herbert Meakin trips, falls into a pile of monitors and breaks his neck. FKA Balding Girls is swept under the stage, and never thought of again.

I guess the music industry doesn’t have the money in it to take risks on acts like Herbert Meakin anymore—nobody gets “made” in a weekend. These days, it's just an eternal game of foreplay, where record deals derive from countless “pints down the road”, handshakes over brunch, and the same unknowns being circled on every A&Rs schedule until their boss demands that an offer is put in.

In the past, young hopefuls with razor-edged haircuts and Topman outfits could pay off their student loans and convince the music industry they had some kind of discernible and long-lasting talent, just by inviting everyone to the Shacklewell Arms and uploading four demos to MySpace. But those days are long gone. Now those artists just put up name-your-price mixtapes on Bandcamp, and have a part time job in Halfords.

Does the music industry still work? Probably. But only if you're a man in a wide-brimmed hat with a digital marketing team singing over a looped sample of an accoustic guitar. Maybe, to some people, that's a good thing? No one will have to suffer through a debut album by The View ever again. More importantly, no one will ever hear the debut EP from FKA Balding Girls.

You can find Oobah on Twitter