I have to confess there’s still a certain thrill when I watch something I’ve done climbing a chart. It’s not an experience I’ve had for some time. The very first time it ever happened to me I was ecstatic. I was 21. It was Lene Lovich’s ‘New Toy’ which I’d written and co-arranged, and played synths on. It got added to the BBC Radio 1 Playlist, which is an essential start, as in the 70′s and 80′s without it you couldn’t compete (unless you were the Sex Pistols or Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but that’s another story.) After a couple of weeks it had risen high enough for us to get invited on Top Of The Pops, Britain’s one primetime music TV show, which again was essential if you wanted a hit. Without TOTP you had almost zero chance of reaching the Top 10; with it, you were likely to get there, even if your record was rubbish.
Even though the charts were only published weekly, when a song was going up them you could feel it. The phone was always ringing. A friend left you a message to say they heard it in their car. Your manager or someone from your record label called with a request for you to do an interview with Radio Aberystwyth. There would be a tiny mention on the Daily Mirror’s pop page. In the streets, you’d hear a titter from a group of kids as you walked by. Based on the accumulation of that buzz, as the day approached for the new chart to be announced, you would find yourself visualising and hoping for a certain number—#19, from last week’s #26? Then your manager would call and wake you early in the morning with the actual number, which would be a rush, or a shock.
When the record was struggling, you could feel that too. The phone would be eerily quiet. You feared the worst. And then when the chart position came in, and your record had stayed at #26, or worse, dropped to #29, you felt sad and deflated. You usually only get one shot at it. It’s almost impossible to turn a record around once it starts to fall. And this had a huge affect on your lifestyle. If the success continued, the offers would keep pouring in, each more exotic than the last: fly to Paris for a TV show, meet the NME’s top journalist who’s writing a feature, go to New York to play guest keyboards on some megaband’s new album. Your agent is desperate for you to tour in the Summer, playing bigger venues than ever before. But if the record went into freefall, within a week, people could be asking you when you’d start thinking about new material, a new album?
Thinking back, it was a crazy way to live. You couldn’t help it affecting your sense of self-worth, and the gratification you felt about your music, which was measured in radio playlists, chart positions, royalty statements. There was no way to truly get face to face with your audience. Signing autographs at the stage door certainly didn’t do it.
And the irony was, those charts were so manipulated. When you saw behind the scenes, the seamy underbelly of the pop business, you’d wish you hadn’t. Parties were thrown, peoples’ speedboats were berthed, their kids’ college funds received anonymous donations. You turned a blind eye to it, because you knew that in order to get heard by the public, and then to compete on a level with the other records that were out, you needed the dark machinery of the Music Business to be working in your favour, not against you.
I can’t tell you how happy I am that it’s all over! Those days are gone. Even if the mainstream music business is still ultimately more powerful than the MySpace world, it has changed beyond the point of no return. And I’m on the cusp. I have a reputation and core sales base that date back to my time on the charts; yet unlike some of my contemporaries, I have a good sense of how to take advantage of the new scheme of things. I feel lucky to have benefitted from the Music Biz when I did, even though there were other times when it did me no favours at all, and great songs got lost without trace just because the oily cogs never clicked into gear.
The main thing is, nowadays there’s not that disconnect between my sense of artistic self-worth, and the commercial realities of the charts and retail sales. Of course I do care whether people are taking notice, whether they’re listening to and buying my stuff, but it’s not a numbers racket any more. And I certainly don’t have to make any compromises just to make some A+R or marketing guy happy. I can live happily as a ‘cult’ artist, making great music and not caring too much about the charts—in fact, emulating my teenage musical heroes, few of whom ever got anywhere near Top Of The Pops.
Best of all, via the Internet, I get to read what real people truly think about my music. When it has affected someone in a profound way, I know I hit the mark. Each chord change or line of lyrics that I struggled with, deliberated over, and eventually settled on because it hit me in the gut—I hear back from somebody who felt it the same way I intended it. I communicated, I touched someone’s soul.
Regina Spector said it best:
“this is how it works
you peer inside yourself
you take the things you like
and try to love the things you took
and then you take that love you made
and stick it into some–
someone else’s heart
pumping someone else’s blood.”
(From ‘On The Radio.’)