LEARN TO WEAR THE SUIT by Jaimie Vernon


In recent weeks I’ve seen many artists on social media whining for the millionth time about how to sell their wares/songs/nubile posteriors up the music industry food chain in the guise of a record deal or publishing deal or both. It’s not unexpected given the recent wholesale destruction of the live music scene globally due to the pandemic. Artists are finally starting to look under the couch cushions or Mom’s purse for loose change as a means of survival.

But there’s the fetid scent of desperation wafting across the social media chasm with every single key stroke. “Why won’t anyone notice me?” “How do I get them to pay attention to me?”, “I’m the greatest thing since Flakes of Ham – don’t they realize what they’re missing?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw4vHMXqEt4

One of the biggest reasons you don’t have a deal, and can’t get traction (aside from the fact that all one billion independent musicians worldwide are in the same boat) is that you talk about yourself. It’s always “Me. Me. Me!!” You know who cares more about you than you? No one. You come off needy and whiney.

Being introspective and self-reverential is great when you’re writing songs. It’s a useless personality trait when you’re trying to do business. And you are doing business. So start thinking like a business person. You mistakenly believe that you and your music are one and the same. If a label rejects your songs, they’re rejecting you. Am I right? As strange as it may sound, the music you make is not the product. It’s the bait.

99% of new artists fail to realize that landing a record deal is like trying to land a job. You need a resume. You need a wrap sheet of accomplishments in terms of performing, experience, goals, drive, talent (with or without songwriting) and the crux of a successful career: an existing fanbase.

Anyone can write songs. Few can write great songs. Labels hope you can write great songs too. But they aren’t counting on it. And if you can’t, they’ve created a mechanism by which they can prop you up with other people’s songs. Why would they sign you at all? Because, as that famous episode of The Brady Bunch pointed out, all you have to do is “fit the suit.” Do what they tell you, smile, wave, put on a show, and wear the wardrobe they’ve created for your personality. You are the product. And they will market you as such. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6wR7ACcMRk

Colonel Tom did it to Elvis. And the formula worked again when Brian Epstein told The Beatles to stop wearing leather and had collarless jackets and stove pipe tight trousers made for them. Epstein was gay and realized that boys, girls, and their repressed Mums would enjoy the show. That’s not to detract from the fact that the Beatles were musical geniuses, but that too was filtered through the watchful eye of a paid employee of their record label, EMI, by the name of George Martin. Eventually, the band grew tired of being manipulated as puppets – making an album, touring, making a movie, touring, making a new single, touring ad nauseam – and decided they’d had enough. Not  long after becoming strictly a recording act in the patriarchal hands of Mr. Martin, Brian Epstein’s use as a promotional and marketing figurehead became painfully redundant (something that ultimately led to his death from a prescription drug overdose).

Meanwhile, The Monkees were created by television executives who auditioned the fictional band members through open casting calls in Los Angeles. Music impresario Don Kirshner was responsible for picking the make-believe band’s repertoire. That is until the make-believe band – filled with real musicians – decided they too had had enough of being manipulated and overlooked for their innate talents, and decided to rip a hole in the manufactured machine. Watch the band’s movie ‘Head’ on Youtube where they lampoon their own pre-fabricated existence:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4nT-5DyjX0

Learning quickly from that publicity fiasco, the people holding the money and the manufactured brands wanted a little more control. At first it seemed that the answer was egomaniacal fathers living vicariously through their children. The Beach Boys being the progenitors of the template, followed later (and simultaneously) by The Osmonds, The Jackson 5, and later, The Sylvers.  But the fathers themselves were almost always the undoing. In the case of the unsuccessful cult act The Shaggs, it was Dad that mentally imprisoned and abused his own daughters. Listen to the surviving women discuss their tortured upbringing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhMJCYMbC3g

And so came a new breed of hucksters, charlatans, and grifters throwing their Sven Gali muscle behind creating made-to-order accessible pop acts. At first they tried to manipulate existing bands. The UK was quite adept at it with artists like The Sweet, The Rubettes, and probably the most famous of them all The Bay City Rollers who suffered a similar fate to The Monkees, but at the hands of their own record label, Arista, and Colonel Tom Parker-esque manager Tam Paton.

Formed in Scotland in the late 1960s by brothers Derek and Alan Longmuir the Bay City Rollers, like many garage bands before them endured several line-up changes included future members of the band Pilot https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iiryJwvDtc. Eventually they were signed to a record deal based on good looks, great live performances, and what would turn out to be the biggest rock and roll fashion statement since Astrid Kirchherr made it okay for guys to wear long hair: Tartan. They were given songs to perform in lieu of their strongly road tested originals. The media was suitably bemused and insisted the band was manufactured – right down to claiming that studio musicians played their parts for them.

But the little girls didn’t care, and Rollermania ensued worldwide. The band recreated their sound note-for-note live. They would release 9 studio albums (or 10 depending on what territory you lived in) and never made a dime. They were swindled out of a reported $8 million in unpaid album sales and merchandise royalties. The surviving members of the group sued Arista in the early 2000’s. Manager Tam Paton conveniently escaped financial auditing scrutiny by dying in 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aw_pHcKSUVI

The Rollers became a blueprint for what we now know as  The Boy Band – though, unlike The Rollers, the new breed have been ‘assembled’ with questionable talent other than good looks, dance moves, and passable singing voices. None play musical instruments. Impresario Lou Pearlman is recognized as the puppet master of the ‘genre.’ The unbelievable story of how he manipulated the music industry and consumers can be seen here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcCRs0Ic3FI

There have even been female versions of this phenomenon, and the most recognizable assemblage in modern times was the globe-dominating Spice Girls. [SIDEBAR: When the Spice Girls reunited for select cities several years ago they held a poll online where fans could pick an additional city to add to the tour. However, haters ganged up on the former teen queens and voted to send them to Baghdad in a unanimous vote.]

As I mentioned earlier: Your songs are not the product. You are. And you need to sellable. It’s a closely guarded secret that the Country music industry has been coveting for decades.  Put a guy in a Stetson and hand him an acoustic guitar or put a girl in tight jeans or a summer dress plus a microphone, add Nashville’s top session players and songwriters, stir vigorously, and you’ve got sell ability. Though, admittedly, the formula has been tweaked in recent years to add a little more Rock edge to the production to bring in a younger audience. It’s called Bro Country, but the formulaic result remains unchanged at its core.

There’s also the divergent pop diva vs. chanteuse approach. Depending on your taste you can follow the serious musical course set by Celine, Shania, Adele, Alannah, Alanis, Amanda Marshall, Carole Pope, Amy Winehouse, Beyoncé, Pink or Christine Aguilera. Or, you can be a sugar coated flavour of the month like Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani, Nicki Minaj, Britney, or [insert yesterday’s forgotten pop starlet here].

There’s even a path designed by the new corporate manipulators that can lead to short-lived teen success via The Disney Corporation (Jesse McCartney, Hilary Duff, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato) or Fame-Via-Simon Cowell (American Idol, The Voice, X-Factor, et al).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9Y-lS1trhw

And, let’s face it, Justin Beiber is in a league unto himself. He was not a cookie cutter creation, but he does have astute handlers and business people surrounding him. As does Michael Bublé in attracting a previously untapped post-teenybopper audience with MILFs, and even your Granny who believe, as I do, that Bublé is cloned from the Brylcreem hair grease of Paul Anka.

Oh, I can hear the hipsters and Emos screaming right now (well, maybe not screaming…maybe passively aggressively sulking/texting): “But we don’t want to be corporate shills. We want to be ARTISTES!!” Well, just like the lottery, if you don’t buy a ticket you can’t win the prize. They don’t want artistes. I repeat: they want you to fit the suit. The real issue at hand is that you keep asking the wrong questions. What you should be asking is: “Why do I want a record deal?”, “What is my ultimate goal?”, “Do I want to be rich? Famous? Both?”; “Do I want to die in obscurity?”

Let me make this as direct as I can: a record deal will destroy your life and ruin you as an ‘artiste’ at least in the configuration that record labels now operate because that “ticket” I mentioned before is based  on submissiveness and indentured servitude.

David Bowie and others from the 1960s had the luxury of making many failed records until something took off for them – Bowie had nearly a dozen failed singles before “Space Oddity” caught fire. The Guess Who released 22 singles (WTF?) with various chart successes before they finally blew up the airwaves with “These Eyes” in 1969. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOKklRmNhxI

The labels had invested and were waiting for that investment to mature. No such luxury exists at the labels in modern times unless you’re with an indie label being distributed through a major. You’ve got one shot to prove yourself out of the gate. Would it not behoove you to find an alternate means by which that pressure doesn’t effect what could be your only kick at the can ever?

The Barenaked Ladies changed the playing field for independents forever in the early 1990s. Play. Play. Play. Ingratiate yourself to thousands of fans. Record a short demo. Then shop the hell out of it. Or don’t. No one owes you anything except in the case of an audience who should have the courtesy of being attentive (once live performing resumes). Make noise. Write songs. Educate yourself. And if you can tolerate it, wear the Johnny Bravo suit.  Then you can at least say you tried it and didn’t like it. But until then stop fucking whining…

=JV=

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 41 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 24 years. He is also the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and editor of “Sunny Days: The Skip Prokop Story.” Available through Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Jaimie+Vernon

4 Responses to “LEARN TO WEAR THE SUIT by Jaimie Vernon”

  1. Richard Skelly Says:

    An excellent read.

    This confirms my suspicion that today’s aspiring solo artist or band has to be successful (or damn close to it) right out of the starting gate. Those days are long gone of issuing successive singles and albums in hopes of grasping the brass ring—while bouncing from one obliging label to another.

    • Absolutely. The formula now rests on the pre-existing fanbase and popularity of an act and independent production and promotion and marketing – that a label will then ride the coat-tails of. Which leads to the question I ask of every new act: WHY would you want to sign with a major?

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