Mel C: ‘The Spice Girls were told that girl bands don’t sell’

As one fifth of the Spice Girls, Melanie C was part of the biggest girl group in British pop history and has since gone on to have a successful solo career on her own terms.

The group created Beatle-like mania when they burst onto the scenes in the mid ’90s, shaking up what was then a male-dominated pop world and proving that girl bands sell records.

Eighty five million of them, in fact.

After three albums and an acrimonious split, Melanie C released two solo albums on Virgin Records – the same major label the Spice Girls were signed to – before suffering the consequences of missing a sales target.

The following five albums were released via her own label Red Girl, the last of which hit No.25 on the UK Charts in 2016.

So what was it like being on the inside of a pop phenomena? And how has Melanie C, aka Sporty Spice, navigated the music business as a solo artist since?

Those questions and more were answered at the Association of Independent Music’s Women in Music event in London last night, during an interview with the Editor of UK trade paper Music Week, Mark Sutherland.

Read on to find out how the Spice Girls dealt with sexism in the music industry and a final word on those constant reunion rumours.

The Spice Girls released their debut album over 20 years ago. Did you have any idea what you were letting yourselves in for?

Absolutely not. I think for a lot of young people who find themselves in that position, it’s a childhood dream and a bit of a fantasy.

When you have fans you don’t think about the downsides, complications or difficulties you have along the way. 

It was amazing and I have no regrets but there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.

But one of the incredible things about the Spice Girls is the impact we had over a really short period of time. 

That period was the craziest time and the thing that influenced and changed my life forever, but it was kind of naive to me [at the time].

Even today the thing that astounds me is that there isn’t a day that goes by where at least one of us is written about in the tabloid media.

That is insane, and it’s quite unique of the Spice Girls.

Did you have any sense of how successful the band were or your wider impact?

It all became a little bit surreal. In ’96 when we first started having success, we were switching on the Christmas lights on Oxford Street.

Up until that point, for everything we’d done there had been other artists there, and there were always loads of fans going crazy for us but it felt like a shared thing.

In the hotel overlooking Oxford Street we were the only artists there and thousands of people started to line the streets.

That’s when we realised that they were there for us.

When the success in America happened, it was just like, Wow. It was quite unusual and it still is for British artists.

What were the factors behind your success?

I think it was the individuality.

“So many young people are trying to find their place in the world and when Spice Girls burst onto the scene, who were a little bit ramshackle, there was someone for everyone to identify with.”

So many young people are trying to find their place in the world and when Spice Girls burst onto the scene,  who were a little bit ramshackle, there was someone for everyone to identify with.

When you’re young a lot of people feel like a bit of an outsider and I’m often told about how we gave people strength to do things, whether it was to pursue their ambitions, or give members of the LGBT community strength to come out to their family and friends.

It’s really incredible stuff that we didn’t realise was happening at the time. It was a little bit of an accident, but what a fantastic one!

Where did the message of girl power come from?

It was something that we never intended.

When we started, we were a pop group, we just wanted to sing, be famous and travel the world. 

But as soon as we were heading into the music industry, we started to be faced with some sexism.

We were told that girl bands don’t sell, we were going into magazines and meeting editors who told us that they couldn’t put us on the front cover because we won’t sell those magazines.

“We were told that girl bands don’t sell. we were going into magazines and meeting editors who told us that they couldn’t put us on the front cover because we won’t sell those magazines.”

That made us have a little bit of a bee in our bonnet and that’s when we started to talk about girl power.

We realised we have something really important to say and a point to prove. It gave us even more determination to succeed. 

We weren’t just doing it for ourselves and for each other, we felt like we had to be a girl band for girls and that was an important message to get out there.

Throughout history, there have been girl bands but they haven’t been as big as the boy bands.

But historically, for music of any kind, a lot of music buyers are women, a lot of the fans are girls – look at Beatlemania.

So being told we couldn’t was like a red rag to a bull with the Spice Girls.

Because we had each other, we had solidarity, so even if we had any personal self doubt we knocked that out of each other because we had this shared belief.

Has the sexism in the music industry that you experienced improved since then?

I really do think things have improved.

The Spice Girls had incredible success, we made lots of people lots of money, and that’s a funny old thing for changing people’s minds!

In the last decade, some of the biggest artists in the world have been women and that’s never happened before… Beyonce, Adele, Katy Perry, the list is endless.

We still have many successful men but women have started to dominate.

I like to think the success of the Spice Girls helped open doors for that to happen.

Do you think the Spice Girls got enough credit for their success at the time?

I don’t think they did. It’s quite difficult in the UK, our media has its personality that makes it quite hard to be successful in the UK sometimes.

“our media has its personality that makes it quite hard to be successful in the UK sometimes.

“People say we like to build them up and knock them down, but I don’t think that’s a British public thing, I think that’s a British tabloid media thing.”

People say we like to build them up and knock them down, but I don’t think that’s a British public thing, I think that’s a British tabloid media thing.

We got a bit of stick at the time, and for years later it wasn’t cool to like the Spice Girls, we didn’t really get played on the radio. But that’s changed as time has gone on.

When you came out of the Spice Girl bubble, what was that like?

It’s impossible to avoid that being chewed up and spat out scenario because what we did was incredible and we had such a wonderful ride, but it’s really hard to get your head around it.

Your life is turned upside down, you can’t walk down the street, you can’t get the bus or the tube. It’s a lot to accept what has happened and you’re exhausted as well.

We worked so hard and I think that sometimes is taken for granted. When artists become successful it’s really hard work to get to that point and when you’re there, it gets even harder.

I look at other bands, and One Direction always springs to mind, and I feel for those boys because you are worked to death, you are living on adrenaline and when [that ends] you have to regroup and figure out who the hell you are.

That was difficult for me, but going into the studio as a solo artist was really exciting.

Spice Girls got together in ’94 and our last album was released in 2000 so I spent all of that time as part of a collective.

We co-wrote with fantastic writers and producers and we were always very much involved in the writing process, but it was collaborative. What we were putting out there was something we felt as a group of people.

So to get into the studio as an individual and become really self indulgent was really nice.

When I went into the studio and started working on my solo album, there was only four of us left in the Spice Girls, and having that taste of freedom personally and creatively, I was a bit like, I’m over that Spice Girls thing.

It was the kiss of death for me.

What was the split like?

[The split] was a bit messy. I felt that once Geri had left, it was unraveling.

The Spice Girls is like a jigsaw puzzle and with one of the girls missing, it’s not complete.

Geri was a huge part of the band, we all had a role to play. We were all of equal importance because we brought something different.

When we first got together, Emma was the last person to complete the five and as soon as we met her something happened.

Even now when you get the five of us together something clicks and it’s a little bit magical.

You made a dramatic left turn in terms of the music you were making for your solo career. Were you trying to deliberately get away from the Spice Girls?

Yes, 100%. I was quite an angry young woman and I wanted to rebel.

I didn’t realise at the time, but looking back that’s exactly what I was doing. I wanted to be seen as an individual. 

I was more than just Sporty Spice, and that was my way of trying to get some recognition as me.

You were still signed to the same label — were they supportive of your new direction?

As long as you’re selling records, the label is happy! I still had the same A&R and I think everybody was really excited.

Being part of something so successful enables you to work with incredible people, I could have taken my pick.

I worked with William Orbit, Rick Rubin and Rick Nowels, who have had huge success and are respected in very different areas and genres of music.

To be able to do that that excited everybody, including the record company. It was an amazing time and I felt very inspired. It was so easy, the album came together beautifully.

It cost lots of money because there was loads around at the time… looking back I feel a bit sick, but it recouped so it’s fine!

I feel very lucky to have been a successful artist in the ’90s. The hangover of that and the change was a difficult one to navigate.

How did you navigate that?

I was unlucky with my second album, it wasn’t as strong as the first in many ways and really underperformed by the standards Virgin Records expected.

With major labels being the way they are, they expected bigger things.

It happened around the same time as the digital age was dawning, record sales were down anyway, and it was quite a fall from grace for me. 

We don’t like to say the word dropped… we parted company! That happened and then I had choices, I could have attempted to get another major deal, which is all I’d known, or I could have approached independents.

But I’d been very fortunate with the Spice Girls and had some nice money, so I decided to go the other end of the scale, set up my own label and self financed, and I still do.

How is going from being the biggest act on a major label, to being an independent artist?

There are pros and cons. The biggest thing as an independent artist is complete creative control.

In life, we always have to compromise whatever we do, and you’d be a fool to not listen to what people are telling you, either take it on board or don’t.

But at the end of the day you make your decisions and you do what you want to do.

The difficult aspect of being independent is losing the infrastructure of a major label, the financial support, the departments they have and the clout they have.

The last two years have been a learning curve, my career has happened in reverse.

I had this huge successful global career, I didn’t know what the hell was going on, who did what, who was getting paid for what, where that money was coming from, what was mine and what I was paying for.

Now I have to take more responsibility for myself and I’m still learning more everyday.

For the young artists starting out now, they have no choice. You have to be a business person.

Streaming has transformed the business over the last few years. Is it nice to come back to an industry that’s making money again?

What is so wonderful is it just feels really optimistic.

There are a lot of old school music industry people who had it so good for so long who were very reluctant to change.

But everything changes and you have to embrace it to move on. There is no choice in the matter.

What’s really lovely is seeing younger people coming into the industry and being very creative in every aspect to make it work.

What advice would you give to other artists when it comes to signing deals?

To really know what’s going on and have people who can help you [understand contracts].

You have to understand what you’re signing up for.

Then just figure out what’s right for you as an artist, I don’t think any way [major or indie] is the best way.

You took a few years away from making records and did some musical theatre and TV work. What was the reason for that break?

I released an album called The Sea in 2011 that I thought was great but it did shit and I was a bit gutted!

I just thought yeah, I need to take a step back from this and then lots of other great opportunities came along.

It wasn’t my intention to be away from music for that long. Everything I’ve done I felt really passionate about, whether it was musical theatre, TV stuff, or touring with other artists. All of these things make you better at what you do.

But I was missing being on stage and I really wanted to get back in the studio, there were lots of things I wanted to get off my chest.

Last year I had a whole year of promoting, touring and playing festivals and I was really bitten by the bug again.

Traditionally, I’ve always worked in that cycle of writing, recording, promoting, touring and disappearing, and I don’t want to do that anymore.

I want to stay out there and stay performing because I feel like you get rusty if you’ve not been on stage.

If I don’t perform, I feel like I’m missing a part of my life anyway but also getting back to it after a break is petrifying.

In that time away, have you seen the industry change when it comes to the sexism you experienced in your early career?

It’s still very male dominated, I personally haven’t seen much of a change in that.

I work with so few female songwriters, out of the hundreds I’ve worked with, five have been women, and the producer and engineer world is still very male dominated.

I’m a creature of habit so often work with the same people. I want to make more of a conscious effort to try and find more women to work with.

People like myself need to champion women and seek them out. That’s a responsibility that I have.

How about behind scenes, are there enough women in senior roles in the business?

I’ve seen very few women in senior roles at major labels.

I was working with Warner Music in Germany a few years back and there’s a real powerhouse female there who is very much in control. But I would say it’s still very male dominated.

I think people want to change, they are more open to that. There was a time when people wouldn’t take it seriously but they do now.

Are you positive for the future?

I feel really optimistic.

It’s been lovely speaking at events like this and seeing how things are changing, how many more opportunities there are, not just for women, but for artists.

“You can’t take your foot off the gas when it comes to Gender equality, we have to keep pushing for it. But I definitely feel we are making good progress.”

You can’t take the foot off the gas when it comes to gender equality, we have to keep pushing for it. But I definitely feel we are making good progress.

How about what the future holds for you musically?

Who knows? A Spice Girl reunion? No! That’s not on the cards.

All of my energy is going into music right now.

That demand for you to reform is always going to be there.

It’s nice that lots of people would like to see it, personally, I think leave it where it is.

Lots of people could make lots of money out of it so that’s why lots of people want it to happen!

The Olympics in London was the last thing we did as a five piece, to me, you’re never going to beat that.

We’re not getting any younger, let’s face it!

Music Business Worldwide

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