Rock and a hard place – taking on the music business

Playing in a successful rock band is the dream of every young musician. EDD SIMPSON thought he’d give it a go six years ago. As his group, Union Sound Set, release their debut album, this is his story of trying to ‘make it’ in the music world

BEING in a band has been a wonderfully challenging, painfully frustrating and altogether addictive experience.

For me it spawned from a love of music, triggered by sitting in my bedroom listening to a band called Aereogramme and their infinitely wonderful album ‘A Story in White’. It began with honest intentions, and with nothing other than a belief that I may have a song or two in me. I was 21, had two brothers both embarking on musical careers in London, but I was and at university in Nottingham at the time, and had never played the guitar. I sat with one of my closest friends in Wetherspoons discussing the possibility of some lessons, and so it began.

Like anything one happens to be passionate about, being a musician and trying to “make it” constantly involves moving goalposts. When I started writing music, all I wanted to do was write for the sake of writing, then I wanted to be in a band, then I wanted to play shows, record demos, be on the radio, play bigger shows, make an album. I’m not sure when, or even if, that thirst will ever be quenched.

For me, being in a band should always stem from the simple desire to create. Music is an art form – and I strongly believe there should be no boundaries. It would be wonderful if there were equal outlets for all artists to be heard but, without sounding dramatic, the longer you spend trying to progress within the music industry, the more contaminated your perspective on what you’re trying to achieve becomes. The music industry is a place with many limitations and boxes that bands are continually encouraged to tick. I think it’s natural for someone who creates music to want to share it with as many people as possible and the greater this desire, the more boxes you are willing to consider, and the more diluted that simplicity of writing for yourself becomes.

That is why the make-up of the band has to be right; to be surrounded by like-minded musicians who have the same desires as you. There has to be a collective goal, a unity and common drive to progress. To find three, four or five other people who all share a similar taste in music, are extremely talented, and have an overwhelming passion to make music, despite knockbacks and rejection in an industry that is notoriously fickle, trend-led and superficial, is not at all easy. Whether it’s a separate work commitment, a desire to front your own band, a new relationship that comes along, getting fed up with earning nothing in a c**p job and getting home from rehearsals at 1am, and on top of that paying for the privilege, results in many reasons not to stay in a band.

Since the very first manifestation of the band under the name Prego, I’ve shared a stage with no fewer than 17 different band members. I feel I could write a book on auditioning, the painstaking process of knowing within nine or 10 seconds of someone entering the room whether they’re going to be anything like right for the band.

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When we had to replace our guitarist in 2005, we went through 30 different auditions for a guitarist, and you couldn’t quite believe whether some of the applicants had even read the advert, which clearly stated the musical influences we wanted – maybe we should have focused on the ones we didn’t.

Having spent a lot of time writing and playing shows we took it upon ourselves to try and build a team of people around us who shared the same belief in what we were doing, and to help us make a mark in the music industry. In years past, labels, publishers and management companies would throw money at the development of new bands when they’d only just formed, as we ourselves found out. But with many indie labels folding and major labels having to re-evaluate their approach due to far fewer records being sold and the gross misspending in the past, bands have been required be far more self-sufficient. This has many positives but, with less risks being taken by labels, building a team of people who believe in what you’re doing is even more important.

I remember reading The Unsigned Guide very early on, and it told me that who you choose as your manager would probably be the most important decision you’d make as a band. I wish then I’d taken the advice more seriously.

We’ve had four managers over the years. It’s such a common desire when you’re in a band to answer “yes” to the question “so have you got a manager?” It’s the same as someone saying “so are you signed?” Your answer feels like a validation as to whether you’re any good or not, and the same applies to having radio pluggers, press pluggers and live agents.

In my experience, managers and the like differ greatly in ability, enthusiasm and influence. It’s important that you have the self-belief that you can consider them as carefully as they’re considering you.

Having said that, not everything you do as a musician is within your control. Timing is always a factor – whether it’s about fitting in with which artist is flavour of the week, being ready for the interest that comes your way, or capitalising on the hype that’s been built.

Prego had been together as a band for just six months when Modest! Entertainment asked us in for a meeting after a friend of mine had given them the only two songs we’d recorded. Modest! is run by Richard Griffiths and Harry Magee. Between the two of them they signed bands such as Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam, and worked with a number of massive artists from Michael Jackson to Ozzy Osbourne. We had just six songs in our repertoire and were understandably bowled over by the interest and were naively planning our guitar-shaped swimming pools already. It was surreal sitting in a room filled with platinum and gold discs of various icons and contemplating what this could mean for us. After a meeting they came down to see a rehearsal and agreed to take us on to try and develop the band. They paid for us to head into the studio and record some more tracks, which came out well and became our debut EP ‘Primaries’. After that we were asked to go and write some further songs. It all seemed to be going to plan and that’s when things changed. Our guitarist left and the high expectations from Richard and Harry were met with panic and a desperate attempt to find a replacement as quickly as possible. The pressure was now on from Modest! to step it up on the writing front, but auditioning for a new member meant far slower progress than they expected, after all they’d spent over �3,000 for our latest tracks and had been paying for our rehearsals ever since they took us on. Finally they sent us into the studio with a borrowed guitarist to record some new songs which were not, on the whole, good enough. It’d been a rush job, and having heard the new tracks Modest! lost interest. Essentially it had all happened at the wrong time. The trend of the music industry was probably right for us, but we as a band just weren’t ready, the line up wasn’t finalised, people weren’t fully committed to the cause and we only had a few songs.

Hindsight is a great thing, and in this early period I learnt a huge amount. It takes time to gel as a band, to write together, to start playing gigs. There are those who get a break early on, but most bands struggle and will have to have the necessary self-belief needed to persevere time and time again. But along the way you meet people who affirm the faith you have, and it’s important to hold on to that encouragement, but to also remember that the appreciation of anything creative is purely subjective, and often it’s down to the right person hearing it at the right time.

We’ve been fortunate enough to meet many people from journalists to radio DJs, to your every day music fan who’ve reassured our belief in what we’re doing. In the end though, it’s our own faith in what we do that’s kept us going for five years and helped us to make a record that not only we believe in, but we’re sure, were it to reach enough ears, that it would be widely appreciated. There’s only so much we can do to affect whether this happens.

‘Making it’ in the music industry is a term that has such varying connotations. For us it would be to get up every day and do what we love; write songs, record albums and play gigs. It’s all to do with talent and perseverance, but I also know too many bands that have deserved so much more than they’ve been recognised for – after all, how many people have heard of Aereogramme?

In the end, you don’t choose whether to have a passion to make music, you either do or you don’t, and what you create cannot be changed by someone’s opinion, it will simply have the ability to move some, and not others. My advice would just be to make music, and see where the journey takes you.

BOTH of Edd Simpson’s brothers have pursued careers in music. His younger brother Charlie found fame as a member of pop band Busted aged just 16, before forming the alternative-rock group Fightstar, who have recorded three albums. Elder brother Will fronts the melodic rock band Brigade, who are about to release their third album through the Pledge Music project.

“During the early years, I looked to my brothers for words of wisdom and advice,” Edd writes. “Fortunately I had both their progress and their mistakes to learn from, but their support and encouragement has always been unwavering.

“I have encountered a common perception from people that with two musical brothers, one having enjoyed a high level of fame, that making inroads into the music industry would be an easier path for us. If truth be told, it’s been both a blessing and a curse. Whilst opening up certain opportunities, it’s also brought with it a certain stigma and attachment we’ve found difficult to escape.

“We are musically, very different, and we’ve often been pigeon-holed in the rock press. Whereas we’d like to see column inches filled with a critique of our music, they’re often taken up with family information and lazy comparisons.”

EDD SIMPSON, 29, was born and raised in Suffolk and his parents still live in Woodbridge.

The singer and guitarist formed Prego – his first ever band – in 2004. The group, which now also includes Suffolk duo Simon Britcliffe (guitar) and Caspar Williamson (bass) with Dan Best (guitar) and Alex Walker (drums), have impressed critics with their “post-rock” sound, featuring atmospheric guitar effects and they have been likened to groups such as Death Cab for Cutie and Sigur Ros. Prego changed their name to Union Sound Set upon signing to the Mighty Atom label earlier this year. Their debut single Hiding Places gained airplay on Radio 1 while their album, Start/Stop, is released today. On Thursday, they will be playing at the Railway pub in Aldeburgh as part of the BBC Suffolk Introducing tour. For more information, go to www.unionsoundset.com.

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