No idea who these guys are.
I never fancied working for a record label. More than a dream factory, it always seemed like a dream abattoir. We all know the old adage about the business model: you sign ten, nine flop and the other one makes so much money that it pays for those nine. Except, statistically, most of your life is spent dealing with those nine angry young ego-hives, who all want to know why they’re not famous like you promised they would be.
And then, every few months, you have to wield the dagger on one of them. Take them into the little padded crying room you keep aside for such operations. Tell them the thing they’ve been working on every day since they were 15 just ain’t gonna work out. Watch them blow hot snot into another tissue. Watch them try to bargain their way out of it, still oblivious to the fact that they hold no cards at all. Then watch them slink off and give an outraged interview to the last media outlet that’ll talk to them, saying, "Our label just screwed us over, they didn’t understand us at all – just a bunch of brain-dead suits. Wankers, maaaan…" Rinse, repeat.
There comes a time when you have to slaughter even the successes. So it is with legendary totems of mediocrity Scouting For Girls, whose own suits have told them they are to release a Greatest Hits – three albums and not quite eight hits into their career. This is basically telling them they’ve placed the whisky on the table next to the revolver. They should go into the study. They should do the decent thing. It’s been in the post for a while: apparently they were informed of this shortly after their second album.
From long experience, labels have become quite good at knowing the sales curve of these things. And so it proved. First album: number one. Second album: got to number two. Third album: evaporated without a trace. The first single from it swan-dived into the charts at 73, made it to number then then sank back out. In the label office, they probably read out those sorts of chart placings while tolling a big brass bell, like at Lloyds of London when a ship goes down.
Despite a band name that always reminded us more of seedy Italian "amateur glamour model scouts" prowling the West End’s creepier underparts than any of the intended twee frippery, Scouting For Girls defined a certain kind of anoni-band that you find repeated time and again throughout UK chart history. They were a group who sold a million records. Yet couldn’t get arrested. Whose personalities were such thin gruel they didn’t even look interesting when positioned next to Greg fucking James. You could stare at photos of them for 17 hours and even if they turned up at your front door and slowly garrotted you you’d still be left with only a vague impression of some eyebrows and a mouth. From the humble plinky piano of the first album, they were up to auto-tune by the third, but it still wasn’t enough. No matter how much they drowningly gurgled, "Look at us!", past a certain point, no one could see them.
There has always been a special space for the professional anoni-band in the music biz: repugnant to real pop fans because they wear the doughty earnestness of guitar music. Repugnant to rock fans because, well, look at them. Yet able to coast through the gaps between the two because radio needs to meet its quotas. Athlete defined the modern model with their slightly awkward hybrid of attempted-indie and flat-footed radio pop. They were all over the airwaves with their first album, sold half a million of their second, then fell off a cliff with the third. And after all that, nobody still has any idea if any of them had a distinguishing feature or an opinion.
The Feeling were the most-played act on British radio in 2006. They were million-sellers and, for a while, the good times rolled. In June of 2006, Island Records paid to send 120 music journalists to Paris to watch them perform at a cafe. This was incredible news to those who didn’t realise there were still 120 music journalists in the UK. They spent like Roman emperors, but behind that there must have been the sneaking guilt that it was always kind of like making your money in waste-disposal, or being Tetra-Pak billionaires. Sure, you make a bundle, you sell-out every show, you’re kings of the known universe in financial terms. But all the same, no one is giving you any respect, are they?
Except your fans. But are they ever really your fans? History seems to bear out that this hump of the bell curve, of the millions of people who don’t actually like music, has barely even registered who you are or what you're about. The bassist from The Feeling was boffing that Sophie Ellis-Bextor – surely pop music’s highest accolade – but Dan Gillespie-Sells was also making equal rights history by becoming the first openly gay lead singer to be too boring for anyone to write about. Their third album, Together We Were Made, stiffed at number 22. Even Travis, who actually had faces and wore distinctive hats, found themselves relegated to fourth on the bill in the JD Sports Tent by V Festival in 2008. If you plug yourself into that eternal present of radioland, then the big brain-wipe of amnesia will shut you out as soon as the train leaves your station.
If Spinal Tap lives anywhere, it’s not with the metal dudes who long ago worked out that parody was a part of what they were doing anyway. It’s in these bland edgelands of the anoni-band. It’s the Tetra-Pak millionaires of music, with their stacks of quids in their Buckinghamshire mansions, their off-the-peg beauty wives and imaginations that never expanded to fit their potential lifestyles.
Scouting For Girls once rode to Brighton on children’s chopper bikes to raise money for charity: stick that up your mini-Stonehenge. The Feeling have one of the best "how we met" stories in pop music history: all five of them met while studying for BAs in commercial music at the University Of Westminster. Athlete named their resoundingly unsuccessful fourth album after Yassim Taleb’s book Black Swan. Not because they’d read it, but just because they’d just read a magazine article about it.
And not because they’d evidently understood it; the message they seemed to have taken away was that, "Life comes with a lot of highs and lows… and we’ve also had a lot of highs and lows, so it seemed appropriate." A bit like that part in Peep Show where The Orgazoid describes his highest drug highs as "really great", the lowest lows as "really bad" and the middle bits as "somewhere in-between". Life is full of highs and lows, as Britain’s next massive anoni-band will discover, but it’s the somewhere in-betweens where the profits still live.
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes
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