It’s time to stop romanticising the music business ‘radical’

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The following op/ed comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured inset), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press. 

A pernicious motif endures in many music business biographies and autobiographies – that of the “maverick” and their transformative impact on not just the business but also society and culture at large.

A certain type of “forceful” personality is lauded and applauded for disrupting just about everything they touch and making the world a better place through their restless actions and their refusal to “play the game”.

Almost all of them, however, are capable of being absolutely ghastly people most, if not all, of the time.

But, and here’s the kicker, their inherent ghastliness is condoned – emboldened, even – because they are making lots of money for everyone. Or they used to make lots of money for everyone and so are allowed to continue being unspeakable because of the money they made in the past (or might make again in the future).

These “mavericks” are sometimes referred to as “characters”, the benign nature of the words papering over hundreds of thousands of square feet of absolutely abhorrent behaviour.

There is an accepted narrative that persists in the music business: that this is just how “genius” operates. Everyone else is merely collateral damage, expected to absorb the tantrums and outright abuse of people who are allowed to get away with it because their behaviour “gets results”.

You’ve certainly heard about them. You may have worked with some of them. You might be still working with some of them. Or maybe you are them.

They are the people who would take pride in spending hours of every working day on the phone just screaming abuse at everyone and anyone. The more they did it, the more they had to do it as that became their modus operandi, their oxygen, their desperate party trick.

They are the label executives and company heads who create a cult around themselves where it’s not good enough that they beat their rivals in terms of market share and sales: they are dead set on destroying them and humiliating them.

They are the people who glory in the “genius” tag that others bestow upon them, who push their staff to breaking point just to prove that they can, enforcing subservience and loyalty through a rotten cocktail of gaslighting, bullying and office space abasement.

They are the heads of companies or divisions who are constantly shrouded in a miasma of accusations of sexism, of racism, of sexual assault. They wear it all like their signature scent, barging through life, and through lives, with impunity.

They are not figures from ancient history. They are not anachronisms. Many of them continue to operate in the business today.

I was pointedly reminded of this not that long ago while attending a book talk where the author told stories of how they call people up just to scream at them, to threaten them with the sack, to exert their power over them because that’s the only way they know how to work with people – to crush them for sport. There was no tone of regret when they loudly recounted these tales. There was only a perverse pride in how they instilled a culture of fear among those unlucky enough to work with them or for them.

Each act of cruelty was recounted not with hand wringing, self-laceration or regret: they came served up with acidic laughter as their chest was swollen up with pride. “Hah hah!” they would howl. “I hurt them to prove that I was better than them.”

I was reminded of it again reading Michael Cragg’s forthcoming oral history Reach For The Stars: 1996–2006: Fame, Fallout & Pop’s Final Party where assorted industry figures were permitted, even encouraged, to treat aspiring pop stars as nothing more than ornaments to be smashed up on their way to another quarterly bonus.

I was also reminded of it last year reading Dorothy Carvello’s Anything For A Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story Of Surviving The Music Industry that catalogued the endemic misogyny powering the American record business in the 1980s and 1990s, buoyed up by a culture of coercion, complicity and coverups. It was so bad that lawsuits are now being filed.

I am also reminded of it in far too many books about the music business.

The problem is that these mavericks can become beacons for how one deports themselves through the business. They can become role models for some who see ruthlessness as the only currency that matters. “Success for me can only come with the destruction of everyone else around me.”

That they continue to break spirits and destroy careers is not because they are admired but because they are feared. Terror is their shield. Disciplinary hearings are mere grist to the mill. But if the disciplinary hearing threatens to break through that shield, there is always the extra insurance of the non-disclosure agreement.

Yet the NDA can become a thing the maverick counts not with shame but with pride. NDAs are trophies to be collected, secretly displayed like platinum discs measuring their dreadfulness.

The more they get away with, the more they believe they can get away with.

Biographies and autobiographies are filled to bursting with accounts of what these people did or continue to do. Board meetings and after shows crackle with their cruelty. They measure the success of their anecdotes only through the abhorrence they provoke among the listeners.

“I did this to them,” they bark, “so laugh and clap and know that I can do it to you if you object or complain or ask why.”

In these tales of maverick thinking and maverick behaviour – where the definitions of maverick and Machiavellian blend into a cruel slurry – no thought is given to the consequences of their actions on other people. In these stories, other lives are just raw meat to be sliced through on the route to victory.

There is no Shakespearean closure where the tragedy of what they have done is laid before them, their faces rubbed in the rubble, where they are finally confronted with the full extent of their awfulness, made to admit to what they have done and then forced to atone for their sins. They just get paid more or paid off.

We need to stop genuflecting before these altars of awfulness.

We need to kill this trope stone dead.

We need to see them for what they are.

These people are not mavericks; they’re arseholes.Music Business Worldwide

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