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Starless and Bible Black

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Starless and Bible Black

Okay. So we got talked into it. Laura and I went to see a big X-Factor concert, featuring the 2009 winner Alexandra Burke and one of the runner-ups Jamie Archer along with the most recent Britain’s Got Talent winners Diversity, the dance group. The line-up was rounded off by a host of other lesser-known acts, among them a new girl group called The Scarletz. For those of you who don’t know, X-Factor is for the Brits what American Idol is for the Americans.

Just before we arrived at the venue a sudden suspicion overcome me. “Alexandra Burke will be backed by a band, right? She won’t just be doing a karaoke gig?” I asked Laura. “I wouldn’t be too sure,” she said.

The place was only about a third-full, which would make it around 3,500 people, mostly teens and folks in their early 20′s. The sound was huge and the light show was quite impressive. It was promising to be a good show. And there was even a drum kit set up, so I was beginning to relax. Yes! There’s gonna be some live music here. That would make sense. You win a karaoke contest like X-Factor in order to go on to bigger and better things. Like having your own band, for starters. Just to show that you’re actually a credible artist. Right?

But then, unexpectedly, after a few minor acts, the headliner Alexandra Burke went on stage. In the middle of the show and not at the end of the night as you would expect. Just her and a couple of male dancers. And a blaring karaoke track. The crowd went wild. Almost as wild as when they played “Me No Speak Americano” during the break. “What?!” I was really disappointed. “No band? Isn’t she the headline act?”

“This is just a glorified karaoke gig,” said Laura knowingly.

I was incredulous. “You mean to say that Jamie Archer is the real headline act here? Or the total unknowns The Scarletz? Are THEY what everyone’s waiting for? Whose drum kit is it?” But Laura was as puzzled as I was. “Who the heck knows,” she said, “I hear that these X-Factor concerts can be pretty strange.”

After more in-between-act music (to which the crowd responded MUCH better than to any of the feature acts), The Scarletz were announced. Four nice girls, good little voices, great vibe – backed by a three-piece white-reggae band with young but good players. “Now that’s gonna be more like it!” I exclaimed hoping to finally be entertained. “I didn’t realize they brought their own band with them!” We had the Scarletz in our studio the night before doing some impromptu a capella stuff for Laura and Ashton’s radio show, so we knew they could hold their own and had some really good songs. I was sure they were going to wipe the floor with Alexandra Burke and most certainly with Jamie Archer. And I didn’t realize that it was them who brought their own band with them. When we talked in the studio the night before, this just didn’t come up.

But the instant the band started playing… I knew they were in serious trouble. The drums sounded woolly, the bass was booming and the guitar was all but inaudible. The four lead singers were set to different levels so that when one was blaring, the others were barely audible. “Oh no!” I exclaimed, “I hope the engineer wakes up in there! He’s KILLING them!” And they actually played very well. But you wouldn’t know!

Halfway through the first song some people in the crowd started booing… First only a few, later more and more joined in. The girls on the stage were quite unaware of that and continued their set. “WHERE THE F is the engineer?!” I yelled. By the fourth song, half the audience was booing and howling in derision. But the sound didn’t change. I watched the soundman incredulously from where I was sitting. He just sat there and did NOTHING at all to correct this atrocious sound, sipping a beer. That’s what happens when all you know is how to mix a karaoke act. All you have to worry about are two faders plus the vocal. You’d think that an X-Factor concert could afford professionals…!

After their fifth track the girls went off the stage accompanied by boos, which they (as we later found out) were totally unaware of. They thought they went down a storm! Well, they SHOULD have. They were tight, had a live band – NO KARAOKE – they were all singing live and in pitch, and had good original songs. But what was coming out (courtesy of this amateur, the soundman) was a cacophony of unbalanced sound, the likes of which I don’t recall even at amateur gigs from days long gone by.

I was really heartbroken. So was Laura. How could the – potentially – best act be allowed to bomb like that?

And then the MC asked the audience if they also thought the Scarletz were crap…

What???

Is THIS what an MC is expected to say? Even if they WERE crap? And particularly because it wasn’t THEIR fault? My blood was boiling, and Laura was beside herself.

And then the (unexepected) “main attraction” of the night, Jamie Archer. This is a guy who never won the X-Factor coming in 4th or 5th. Or lower. Doesn’t have original music, and while definitely a nice fellow with a good stage energy, he’s also quite definitely just an average karaoke singer. Not too bad, but also nothing you’d remember for more than an hour.

And yet… the crowd went WILD.

Him alone on the stage, accompanied by a loud backing track. Jamie was just about in tune (some of the time) and just about holding his own. Were those people DEAF?! After a couple of poor cover tracks Jamie switched to his guitar and did the rest of the set acoustically. Covers as well. The crowd loved it all – and sung along nicely…

But I just had to leave. I don’t recall being at a concert where I was so sucked dry of energy. Not a SINGLE moment where the heart could soar. Everything was average, already aimed at people with the lowest IQs but dumbed-down even further from there. Overall, appallingly low quality entertainment. The featured signers were average at best, and yes, that goes for Alexandra Burke as well, who is not “bad” to be sure, it’s just that she’s just not that great either. Maybe with a band things would come across differently… I know Laura can sign circles around her even without warm up. As for Jamie… Nice guy with positive energy. And let’s just leave it at that.

Before we left (early), Laura snuck backstage, courtesy of Richard Diaz, the promoter who’s also a friend of the house. She felt she just had to speak to the girls (The Scarletz) to give them a boost and to let them know that we thought they were great, but that they were just completely let down by the soundman.

She ran into Katya, one of the four Scarletz. “How was it?” Katya asked.
“You didn’t hear the crowd…?” Laura asked somewhat incredulously.
“Sure did,” said Katya, “sounded like they loved it!”

Aw m’gawd. Laura couldn’t help herself. She thought about this quickly. Should she tell Katya the truth? Or should she lie and say that everything went great. And then what? As soon as they’d get out on the town they’d hear the truth from everybody else! Should she just be straight?

Well, Laura’s nothing if not straight. “The sound sucked and the people booed…” she said.
“What??” Katya exploded. “Girls, did you hear that?”

Moments later, an unfamiliar girl ran up to Laura, possibly a member of the Scarletz entourage, “you’re full of shit!” she exclaimed. “I was there, it sounded great! NOBODY booed!” She was ready to attack Laura physically.

Laura didn’t let that phase her. She spoke to Katya and the other girls and gave them one pearl of wisdom any artist on the road should know. “No matter what you do, you must always insist to have your own soundman on the road with you. Even if they’re only gonna be there to watch. They will be the only person standing between you and disaster on stage.”

The next day, Facebook was full of comments from the people who went to see that show. “The Scarletz SUCKED!” said most of the posts. And, to add insult to injury, “Jamie Archer was AWESOME and saved the night.”

Two days later, I still can’t shake the bad vibe. To top it all off, a new season of X-Factor just started on TV and I made the mistake of watching the full 90 minutes of it. I always used to watch with morbid fascination – sometimes actually enjoying it, I will confess. But this year… I felt slimed.

After the show was over Laura actually had tears in her eyes. “THIS is what people support. This is the SHIT they PREFER to real music!” she exclaimed. “We have spent years slugging our guts out, promoting the best independent music on the face of the earth, using Fame Games as a vehicle – and we encountered nothing but fierce opposition. Meanwhile… people go out and pay money to watch AVERAGE singers who barely sing in tune, and who won’t even bother to put on a proper show! And won’t even bother showing up with a band… And when a band does show up, the show’s very organizers SABOTAGE it deliberately as if to say ‘see, I told ya live music sucks!’”

I couldn’t disagree. Yeah, I know there’s a lot more to this than that. I know there are layers within layers, there’s politics and economies to think about.

But there’s also “right” and “wrong.”

I was always very tolerant of all this American Idol and X-Factor thing. Heck, we even befriended Tony Cowell (Simon’s older brother) and brought him in on the Fame Games show to provide a sort of a “bridge” between these two worlds. But I must say this: I’m fed up with karaoke as a form of MAINSTREAM entertainment. If this is what audiences today are weaned on, they won’t EVER have a CLUE what REAL music and live concerts are all about!

This must stop before it’s too late!

And then it hit me. It IS stopping. The music industry has created a VACUUM which sucks itself in – and loses its sales and even its live audiences. But bring back a REAL act, properly rehearsed (backed by professional sound people, please) and with good songs… and modern audiences will go back to buying music and attending concerts. It’s a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t they? And here on Fame Games we have literally thousands of such world-class acts…!

And it’s young bands like the Scarletz who are going to lead the way. If they don’t lose heart. And it’s AWESOME artists like the ones we host on Fame Games who are going to “inherit the earth” – if we can prevent the industry from sabotaging us…!

Somebody – please tell me that I’m not just deluding myself…

Old friend charity
Cruel twisted smile
And the smile signals emptiness for me
Starless and Bible Black
(King Crimson)

  1. Now Paul & Laura… what were you thinkin’ going to the circus to see proper live gigs??

    Keep on doing what you’re doing.. concentrating on the solution…..Rome wasn’t built in a day. Build, build, build… they will come pouring through. Flood gates will open.

    xx
    indy

  2. A sceptical music fan says:

    “Everything was average, already aimed at people with the lowest IQs but dumbed-down even further from there”

    Good quote, that’s what it’s all about! There are lots of stupid people with no taste who are prepared to spend money on cr*p.

    Same reason why McDs exists. Don’t waste your time reviewing stodgy dry burgers covered in ketchup ;)

  3. What a refreshing article to hear. I didn’t go to the concerty myself ’cause I wasn’t shelling out that kind of cash for acts when I could go to the O2 and see a huge act for the same price.

  4. It’s a strange situation. Certain people (not all) have become so accustomed to the homogeny of these shows that it is just ridiculous. To many people – X Factor etc viewers – the homogenised, studio processed, compressed, ready mix of some or other Whitney Houston backing track has become the standard that they are used to. Throw a full on band full of actual people into the equation, all of whom are at the mercy of a sound engineer and the system he is driving, and people are suddenly faced with a sound which is well outside their normal listening experience. Remember – people who are likely to be at an X Factor show are NOT live music fans, and quite possibly have no experience of what a drum kit actually SOUNDS like in real life anyway! People who attend X Factor (etc) shows are there in full expectation of seeing and hearing EXACTLY what they saw on television last Christmas, where, their “stars” sang “wonderfully” (actually, moderately) to a flawless tape. On TV, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all about the “singer” anyway. So, as the live show is purely a further money spinning spin off from the TV show, where the latter is replicated as closely as possible, 95% of the audience are going to be absolutely fine with this. Sad, isn’t it, that so many people’s expectations are so cluelessly low.

    Basically, expectations of the masses are lower than ever. Simon Cowell and all are very clever. They have made ridiculous fortunes, whilst truly talented people haven’t. They have found a way of ensnaring tracts of the public’s money so massive that it would make the Inland Revenue jealous, and through their manipulation of people’s sad Saturday nights, have dumbed down people’s musical expectations so drastically, and then manipulated the masses into “choosing” their own artist out of what is basically a pack of mediocrity.

    Mediocrity – if a singer manages it all the way through a song without any howling bad notes, then they are appraised as a star! This point, in particular, surely being the point that should separate a singer from a non-singer in the first place! Singers can sing – other people can’t! In fact – I watched some of the show on TV on Saturday night, and I definitely heard some pretty ferocious processing going on in the audition stages. In the past, the contestants stood and sung acapella with no mic or backing to the panel in a closed room. Now, they have the full backing tracks and a full theatre, or even arena audience. And I definitely heard plentiful use of auto tune there too. Now, I use a touch of auto tune in the studio where it’s totally necessary, although only if I REALLY can’t be bothered with running another take, but surely this has no bloody place in a nationally televised talent show, where surely the whole purpose is to ascertain how good a singer each contestant is? Hmm… I really liked the African girl, actually, who lives in Clackmannanshire, just up the road from me. I really liked that she changed the song she sang, to give it a totally different meaning. Not hugely clever – but in the scale of X Factor contestant cleverness, quite merit-able! But I don’t ACTUALLY KNOW what she sounded like! Apparently, auto tune was added in post production, so, in actual fact, the production company who do X Factor can totally manipulate what theTV audience hear, and therefore who they like, and who they don’t. Wow! Now that’s some level of manipulation! And massively unfair, surely? Bent, in fact!

    But then again, these people, in the main, aren’t REALLY singers, are they? They’re not REALLY artists at all. They stand on the stage and shamelessly proclaim, with tears streaming down their faces that they are here to make enough easy money change the lives of their invalid mothers, or impoverished children, or to please their deceased fathers! Rarely do you hear them proclaim “I’m here because I am an artist and musician, and I have a musical statement to make. Here’s a song I wrote about the state of the world…” No – they’re there to take a shortcut to earning a lot of money, (or what they think is going to be a lot of money) or to feed their attention seeking lust for what they perceive ‘fame’ to be. Fair enough – if that floats their boat, who am I to judge? But I certainly cannot judge that moral as being in any way artistic, or even talented.

    It’s all very sad to me.

    But. You made a couple of other really interesting points too. You said that the venue was only a third full, I think? Well, actually, that’s great! Sort of. Cos it means that actually, not THAT many people are cajoled into attending these shows after all. But is that because it is too much of an effort to get off their fat Saturday night Dorito crunching arses, and get themselves down to their local theatres for a night out? Probably! X Factor (etc) is, after all a TV experience (and a pretty sad one at that, frankly), as opposed to a live gig. So maybe by staging the ‘live’ show, they have misunderstood their true demographic?

    I am going to see Muse in Manchester in 12 days time! (Yes – I’m counting the days!) They are a truly magnificent live band, and I’ll be standing in a stadium with 40000 other people enjoying a truly wonderful spectacle. And the following weekend, 140000 people, over 2 nights will see them at Wembley Stadium. Meanwhile, all the major festivals across the UK were sold out this summer, with massive crowds paying out their money to stand in British fields of mud whilst enjoying their worthy favourites and discovering others with open ears, hearts and minds. This is great. It’s not dead at all then! And indeed – each of those bands will be mixed by their own sound engineer, of course! Because each of those bands has a degree of artistic control over what they do. Correctly. Unlike the – let’s be honest – far less savvy puppets that X Factor etc produces.

    Which brings me to my final point. Sound engineers and BUDGET.

    We have to remember that X Factor live is just a further money maker. Or that’s the plan, anyway. The bigger the profit, the more successful the tour, of course! As I understand it, the Muse set is SUCH a show this time, that despite the sold out stadia, they will not make much profit this time. (My company works with Muse to a degree, so we are involved in a small way with the production, which is how I know). X Factor shows, of course, are on a far smaller scale. So production essentials, such as good sound and good musicians, for which the bulk of the audience has no appreciation anyway, are the first to bite the dust. Audience members are less discerning about such things than a Glastonbury attendee, so the production company will say “Why bother then? We can save some budget here. The audience will not know any better.”

  5. Hey! Is it okay if I go a bit off topic? I’m trying to read your website on my new iPad but it doesn’t display properly, do you have any suggestions? Thanks! Andreas

  6. A sceptical music fan says:

    I actually think 3,000 people to watch some British X-factor people in Spain is a lot of people! Yes all the people there would have been British, but you are talking at about 3% of the entire British population in this part of Spain at that concert.

    Why these people would want to pay 50 euros for such rubbish is beyond me, but there is no accounting for taste as is generally the point of the article.

    Paul, maybe you should do an article on why there has been so many great British independent bands that have come out of the UK over the past 20 years. The system seems to work for them, they get famous independently by working the bar circuits and then getting talent spotted and signing for a mid-ranging record company. I am thinking Oasis, Blur, Stereophonics etc i.e. the whole Brit-pop scene in the 90s – and more recently Franz Ferdinand, Keiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys, Muse etc. The list really is endless!

    Is this proof that indie music is live and well and always has been?!

    • You’re assuming that 3,000 is equal to 3% of this market. This means you think that the market here ¡s only made up of around 100,000 English-speaking people. It is, in fact, much larger. The total “foreign” market potential in the South of Spain is the largest such market in the world and, by some rather reliable estimates, can be up to 3,000,000 strong (covering all the Costas!).

      A cautious estimate of the Spectrum FM audience is around 160,000 and a slightly smaller figure for Talk Radio Europe, both of which stations were the primary PR campaign drivers. This means they potentially targeted 300,000 people. An audience of 3,000 thus represents only one percent of the addressed market. If you assume that only 50% of the addressed market is “younger” and is therefore the “target” market, then the 3,000-strong audience represents only two percent of that market.

      Is that impressive? Well, that depends. When Deep Purple was down here some 10 years ago, they filled the Estepona bullring (official capacity 8,000) twice over, generating 12,000 ticket sales and entertaining a crowd estimated at 25,000 gathered outside! This was accomplished with radio advertising as well, but the market at that time was (by some estimates) only about 70% of what it is today. The expatriate crowd which was targeted was probably only around 100-150,000, so that particular concert could be said to have mobilized up to 30% of the targeted population! An unheard-of success and if even marginally true, then it’s a really interesting comparison between not just the impact of these acts, but also the loyalty and size of their respective audiences.

      With this in mind, 3,000 people is not a great number and confirms many people’s scepticism:

      No CREDIBLE headline act = reaching a break-even point will elude you.

      I can only hope that the promotor doesn’t give up and only learns from this. We need more concerts – but GOOD ones next time, please!

      As for British independents who have gone on to succeed – you’re totally right. Someone should attempt to analyse that. In fact, I’m already half a step ahead on that front. I’ve been collecting materials for the past few YEARS, which may serve as good background for writing a piece like that – one of those days… The thing is, I don’t want to write a speculative piece which ends up with essentially just praising the British artistry for its own sake. There needs to be a more solid grounding and background for people to be able to draw conclusions from it and… possibly replicate the formula in their respective markets. If indeed it is a formula….

      Cheers & thanks for writing in!

  7. Hi,

    There are many very valid and useful comments and the article was excellent (thanks Laura). My company did the online marketing for this event and without going into all the details there were so many problems and set back that were simply not the promoters fault in terms of red tape etc. This meant that in the end we had under 4 weeks to start promoting it. As soon as we started it was announced that Faithless was not going ahead so we had to move into repuatation management as everyone assumed this one would not happen either. Then of course a couple of days before was another concert in the Marbella Bull Ring.

    I will come on to the acts in a mo. What I do want to get across is that it is good that concerts are being brought to Marbella. Whatever anyone feels about X Factor or the acts that come out of it, it is still hugely popular. The night was designed to entertain people, which in the main I think it did.

    The numbers were closer to 4000 than 3000 but short of expectations and again much was due to the fall out of the Faithless concert and the concert a few days before.

    The music:
    Agreed…it is hugely dissappointing to see someone like Alexandra perform to a backing track. Her credibility as a singer as opposed to a performer is going to be short lived if she doesn’t actually start SINGING.

    Nobody was more gutted and upset for the Scarletz than me as I had spent a couple of weeks getting to know them and arranging interviews in Spain. EVERY station they went on to and sang on LOVED them and were blown away by their talent. The concert was NOT a good representation of their talent although I actually thought they were great but very much hindered by sound quality etc. Join their FB group and see for yourself!!

    Back to concerts in Marbella.

    Whatever people felt about this concert please keep with it. There are more planned and of course many lessons have been learnt from this event. Given the actual time we all had to get the show on the road the main thing is it happened and we have received a good number of positive comments.

    WE NEED more concerts in Marbella!!

  8. Thanks PJ, great post!

    You’re completely right: we must not get discouraged and continue demanding more quality concerts in Marbella and supporting them accordingly.

    All things considered you guys really did a great job. Really! But the essential point of the above rant is for the NEXT gig to be MUCH better!

    My biggest PERSONAL beef on the night was with the “soundman.” I wanted to kick his amateur deaf-eared butt outta there, most especially because he made NO effort to correct the situation.

    Which brings me to my second beef that the organizers didn’t consider this situation in advance and didn’t provide someone with experience. Even a LITTLE experience would have helped. Anyone with EARS could have fixed that mix within a few short MINUTES at most! Additionally, clearly insufficient time was taken in set-up and then sound-check, most especially in the way the kit was miked up. The sound guy should have used a minimum of 10 correctly placed mics to get the kit to sound just right, instead of what looked like 4 or 5 mics with 2-overhead ones placed in a position that looked more suitable to for a JAZZ kit – but not for a pop/rock sound.

    My third and final major beef is with the MC who should be SHOT for putting down an act in front of all these people. Most particularly because they were NOT to blame for that fiasco. We just need to decide where to shoot him. And then shoot him there a few times, meticulously. ;)

    As for my personal feelings regarding karaoke – I’ve now lost patience with it. Particularly when it’s practiced by professional singers.

    On a much more positive note, the work around the gig was excellent and the organization was TOPS – as good as can ever be expected.

    I sure hope you guys will only take out the best experiences from it and move on to bigger and more successful things. This place needs you to stay the course.

    And we will always support you in that!
    :) xx paul

  9. Upwards and onwards for sure!!

    I have no doubt that the Scarletz are going to make some of those ‘boo boys’ eat their words :)

    As you will see from my FB PM to you earlier today I cannot even bring myself to think about the MC. Weapons are loaded just tell me when to open fire!!

    Mind you we should have guessed by the very first announcement “ladies and gentlmen may I introduce DIVERSIFY” dohhhhhhh

  10. Dams in can hold back massive bodies water. Very rarely does a dam ever just break spontaneously. But, punch a small hole in one area of the dam, and a little bit of water will start seeping out. As the water seeps, the hole grows simultaneously larger and faster until that particular section of the dam erodes, and water is just pouring out at a completely chaotic (and uncontrollable) rate.

    This of course, would seem like an extremely frightening and hopeless disaster to anyone looking on. But, in every single case lies one certainty… The water will eventually drain completely, the dam can then be repaired (and made better than before), and the lake can be refilled.

    I think you’re absolutely right Paul – and it won’t be long before this lake is completely drained!

    • Yep, that’s exactly what it’s like I think. Except that when that dam bursts – I have a feeling it will be a big bang rather than a slow drain…! :) They’re gonna have build a new one.

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