About halfway through the first episode of the BBC documentary ‘Hits, Hype and Hustle,’ a series designed to give insight into how an artist becomes successful in the music industry, the old rock romantic within me asked: ‘Whatever happened to attitude, albums and ability?’
Now that mind sound like the grumbling of a curmudgeonly old critic, but the programme went to great lengths in making the point that without hype and hustle a hit is unlikely to occur.
The principal contributor to episode one was award winning music agent Emma Banks, whose client roster includes such artists such as Katy Perry, Kanye West and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Her latest prodigies are a pleasant sounding, power pop band called Stereo Honey, whose guitarist seemed only to aware how important it was to have a ‘great team’ supporting the band as they strove to make a major breakthrough, this network including a Manager, Agent, Media Manager – and to think long ago Brian Epstein covered all these bases by himself for The Beatles.
Very different times I know and it would be foolish not to recognise hype and hustle has always been part of the music business, but the machinations that go into manufacturing success today appear more profound than ever and as one observer on current trends remarks: ‘Between business and creative matters there are often difficult decisions that need to be made. No matter how good the music is, image is everything.’
Yet as if to confirm the old adage of there being nothing new under the sun, Banks uses as her strategy model Motown Records who fifty-odd years ago were masters in nurturing talent and finding the exact song for the right artist. Indeed, the highpoint of the documentary is a Motown story where ‘Dancing’ In The Street’ has just been written but a female guide vocal is required for the track. From the office a young secretary is asked to oblige and suffice to say the song never reached the star name for whom it was intended. The young typist in question was called Martha Reeves and the rest as they say is history – and if that is not the basis for a West End Musical I don’t know what it is.
Where the documentary also succeeds is describing the seismic changes that occurred with the emergence of rap and hip-hop, when white, thirty-something record company execs had absolutely no idea what they were looking for and how the arrival of the internet turned the whole concept of discovering new talent on its head.
In the closing moments there is a current interview with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone who were members of The Zombies, an act whose first single ‘She’s Not There’ was a huge 1964 hit in Britain and the US. They reflect on how they were unable to chart with future releases making an assertion they projected the wrong image to the record-buying public, but at the time they were up against stiff competition as groups such as The Kinks and The Who were putting out staggeringly good singles at the rate of every six weeks.
In her interview Martha Reeves reflects on her early days as a Motown hit maker remembering how she was schooled in look, moves, sound, and in her words ‘taught show business.’
At the same tender age it is hard to imagine Pete Townshend or Ray Davies attending such classes.
Part Two of ‘Hits, Hype and Hustle’ will be shown on BBC Four on Friday (10pm).
NEIL SAMBROOK is the author of MONTY’S DOUBLE – an outstanding new thriller now available as an Amazon Kindle Book.