interviews

Top educators on how to get a job in the music biz

Maria Thomas,
University Of Hertfordshire

“Many of our students do internships while they are studying and this often then leads to a role when they graduate. Having a team who are active in the industry and having a strong connection ...


A quiet revolution: Inside Biffy Clyro's MTV Unplugged masterplan

Years before he would become famous as the frontman of arena-conquering, festival-headlining Scottish alt-rock heroes Biffy Clyro, Simon Neil was a kid infatuated with a cassette. He still owns it, the same one he rushed from school to buy on the day it came out. To say that he knows Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York off by heart simply wouldn’t go far enough. On the cusp of entering his teenage years, he would ritually cover it with his friends, top to bottom. All of it. Not just every line Kurt Cobain sang, but every syllable of banter uttered between songs, too. “Legitimately, we did!” grins the bearded frontman as he paints a portrait of his younger days to Music Week in London’s Air Studios. “We played all the covers, all the chat… And recorded it!” As his Biffy Clyro bandmates – brothers James Johnston (bass) and Ben Johnston (drums) – record music for a new film soundtrack project downstairs, Neil articulates just how big an impact MTV Unplugged had on his life. “It was such an integral part of my education as a musician,” he continues. “At that point, I was 11 or 12, I liked Nirvana because they were noisy and abrasive and it was anti-establishment to me. I was too young to think there was any kind of sophistication to them – it was the energy and aggression that appealed to me. Watching Unplugged made me think of songs in a different way. That’s what made me want to write songs, it wasn’t necessarily Smells Like Teen Spirit or anything like that, it was hearing them play these songs really stripped back.” He has, of course, come a long way with his own songwriting since then. The story of how Biffy Clyro catapulted themselves from alt-rock underdogs peddling charismatically oddball songs like There’s No Such Thing As A Jaggy Snake to scoring platinum records (their biggest selling album, 2009’s Only Revolutions, currently stands on 759,130 copies according to OCC data) is one for another day. This is the tale of how, last year, Neil and the Johnston brothers got to fulfil a childhood dream and record their own MTV Unplugged set. And how, in doing so, they’ve helped revive one of MTV’s most iconic brands on UK shores…There was a time when MTV Unplugged was an anticipated milestone for any artist’s career: a wholly unique opportunity to present their songcraft in its most elemental form. The list of artists who made the brand’s name was a veritable rolodex of the biggest names in music and culture at any given time, from Eric Clapton and 10,000 Maniacs to Alice In Chains and Lauryn Hill. It wasn’t just Nirvana that captivated Simon Neil either. Both Neil Young and Mariah Carey’s MTV sets were early touchstones for him. And then, slowly but surely, in the years after Jay-Z’s phenomenal Unplugged set in 2001, the brand started to unwind. A brief spurt in 2009 included Adele and Katy Perry, but were presented in a different format and only yielded two actual CD releases. Bookings went from numerable to sporadic – a 30 Seconds To Mars performance here, a Lil Wayne one there. Yet that is nothing compared to its diminished frequency on our shores. Indeed, as Albert Schilcher, VP, talent and music, MTV International explains, Unplugged has been AWOL for a long time now. “In the UK, the last one was The Corrs in ’99 and before that probably Oasis in ’96,” he says.     Neil, for one, never thought Biffy would get to do their own Unplugged. “It felt like that ship had almost sailed,” he says. “There had been a bunch of Unpluggeds in the past 10 years but it felt like it was maybe not for us, maybe the essence of unplugging a band had changed.” As it turns out, Biffy were the perfect choice for resurrecting the brand. Not only are they extremely popular, having now headlined Reading & Leeds Festivals twice and Download, their relationship as both friends and partners of MTV goes way back, including working together for a performance at the 2014 MTV EMA awards in Glasgow. But Schilcher also stresses the enduring, and unique, appeal of Unplugged as an important factor. “As an artist you think, ‘What am I going to do with this?’” he says. “Biffy really liked that angle, it let them step away from [being] that big stadium-y rock act.” Mini acoustic performances are built into Biffy’s DNA as a band, but the strength of the MTV Unplugged brand allowed them to prove that outside of their own fanbase, who already know that enormous rock songs like The Captain sound every bit as impressive acoustically. “People who aren’t into metal or heavy music, when they hear it they always just hear the distortion,” Neil gestures. “Probably the way I am when I hear certain types of techno, I just switch off. For us the appeal was that most people see us with our shirts off playing as aggressively as we can. We want to show people that we care a lot about our songs, we really work on our songs.” Neil proceeds to address the preconceptions about songcraft many louder acts still – unfairly – have to negotiate in 2018. “Most of my favourite rock bands, if you take away the distortion pedals and Marshall amps, it’s as good as any Paul Simon record – things that are critically and culturally acclaimed as unquestionable,” he says. “And I do actually like Paul Simon… but there’s still that bit of snobbery about rock music and I think it’s redundant in this day and age.”    The benefits are mutually exclusive.“Part of our strategy is to bring back to life a couple of the real heritage brands,” says Schilcher. “We brought back TRL in the US, we did a Yo! MTV Raps event as part of our EMAs in London. We’re looking at the biggest, coolest and most legendary brands that we have – and they’re Unplugged, TRL and Yo!. We’re still doing reality shows, that’s part of the general entertainment business, but in the music space we do like the idea of reactivating some of those brands, and coming up with new ones as well, of course. It feels like a really good, healthy thing for us.”MTV and Biffy’s stars aligned last year on November 8 at London’s Roundhouse. For Neil, there was an acute psychological pressure attached to it. It didn’t help that Biffy re-watched all of the classic MTV Unplugged sessions again, be it Nirvana or seeing Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder standing on his stool during a frenzied rendition of Porch. “It was like, ‘Oh nooooooo! This is such a big deal’” he laughs. “Because here we are, 20 years later, still talking about those performances!” He tells Music Week he dealt with his anxiety levels with his good old friend denial, focusing on the setlist to avoid seeing the big picture. “It’s a live performance but really it’s not because it’s going to be there forever, it’s almost contradictory,” he observes. “It’s meant to be a live thing that happens once and there it is and it’s there forever, warts and all.” Playing in the shadow of a huge tree onstage, they rearranged songs, debuted new track Different Kind Of Love and, as is tradition, put their own spin on a classic. Beach Boys’ God Only Knows is not only one of the most revered songs of all time, but also the first dance he had with his wife. Its lyrics are also tattooed on his chest. “Talk about sacred cow territory!” he says laughing as he bangs his hands on the Air studios table. It’s all captured on MTV Unplugged: Live At Roundhouse, available in multiple formats on May 25 via Warner Bros. Launched with an instant grat of Many Of Horror – famously covered by X Factor winner Matt Cardle – a D2C ticket bundle pre-sale opportunity has already had over 10,000 preorders. Biffy’s label hope to keep on pushing the unique nature of the set. “My plan is to show people who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool Biffy fans the other side of Biffy,” says Jennifer Ivory, general manager, UK, Warner Bros Records, of the label’s overriding strategy. “The fans know it well, but other people may not have seen it before.” This will be achieved through a host of digital ads, poster ads and marketing in conjunction with MTV. And not just in the UK. MTV and Warner are partners in marketing it globally to release to air in the UK, Europe, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Latin America. Not only do Biffy tap into MTV’s global network, the physical release makes good business sense, too. “These projects always work well when band’s are in-between albums,” says Schilcher. “It’s a great opportunity to get something that resembles a greatest hits but is actually a new recording. When the time is right it can work perfectly.” Speaking of ‘in-between’ albums, for Neil, Biffy Clyro’s Australian tour in April marked the end of touring their latest album Ellipsis – it’s part of why he cut his trademark long hair, it’s all about moving forward right now. With that said, however, unlike so many other acts who’ve done Unplugged sessions, Biffy aren’t done with it yet. In April, they announced they would be taking their Unplugged format (albeit with altered setlists) to Dublin, Belfast, Cardiff, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Manchester and culminating with a show at London’s Royal Albert Hall. “We’ve talked about doing acoustic tours for a while, there was never any reason to do it,” smiles Neil. “We’re not at that age where it’s like, ‘Let’s go and sit down.’ But being in a band, and having toured for about 18 years now, it was just nice to go out and do something we’ve never done before. It will give us that little burst of newness before we start the next album proper as well. And that’s what we want. We never want to feel like we’re going through the motions and that’s why we decided to do Unplugged.” The looming question here is what’s next for MTV Unplugged in the UK. Schilcher tells Music Week there are going to be two more, ideally in 2018, if not in the next 12 months. And he doesn’t just see opportunities for rock bands either. Pop artists looking to “get to a different level in terms of credibility” interest him. As does the world of EDM. “What we haven’t done yet is a dance act,” he says. “I’d love to do an electronic act in a big way. Do something really unexpected and make it brilliant. Some of them have so many hits, and to see them arranged and realised musically, acoustically, is quite a challenge. I think some of these guys are so talented they could just nail it.”But back to one group who already nailed it. Simon Neil says neither he nor the Johnston brothers slept properly after the performance – they had amassed an endless supply of adrenaline they were unable to expend as they sat down onstage. Then the next day, he started to feel joyous. “I’m really, really happy with it,” he concludes. “These songs are really important to us. Picking the songs, I wanted to make sure there were things I would want to hear in 20 years, and hopefully someone else will want to hear these songs in 20 years as well!”Who knows, maybe there’s a kid out there somewhere who’s about to learn it, banter and all…

'We want to be a great creative label': Stefano Anselmetti on Prolifica Management's new label JV with PIAS

When the going gets tough, the tough turn Pro. And renowned management company Prolifica is turning to PIAS for a joint venture label to help keep the indie rock flag flying. The label – known as Prolifica Inc – will launch with two Prolifica Management clients on the roster; Two Door Cinema Club and Circa Waves, who have exited major label deals with Parlophone/Virgin EMI. “We’re starting with them and then looking at other artists as well,” says co-founder Stefano Anselmetti. “For now, we have two big acts we’re making records with and we need to put all our attention on, so I don’t think we’re going to sign a million things for a while.” Nonetheless, Prolifica Inc will hire dedicated staff and use existing independent promo teams as well as tapping into PIAS’ expertise.   “Two Door Cinema Club are a band with a strong management team behind them that could probably manage their own releases if they wanted to,” says PIAS chief creative officer Jane Third. “But what we offer is the in-house creative and promotional team if people would like to engage with it. We’re there as a service.” Anselmetti says the label will give his clients “more options” when it comes to releasing records, particularly with the tough streaming environment for indie rock. “Competing with contemporary music on streaming platforms has been difficult,” he says. “But it is improving again, so I think a lot of labels were short-sighted. It’s always been quite cyclical but it’s become a data-driven business so everybody just looks at streams and age groups and people are losing sight of the music. “Bands need to make sure they compete with contemporary sounds,” he adds. “Streaming numbers are the indicators that told everybody rock is not worth it, but we see it from a completely different perspective. Ticket sales for alternative rock are actually still vibrant, so there’s obviously this connection there.”Indeed, Two Door will headline Community in Finsbury Park on July 1, having sold 35,687 copies of 2016 album, Gameshow, according to the Official Charts Company. PIAS worked the band’s earlier albums, including platinum-selling debut, Tourist History (Kitsuné). “It’s very reassuring for us that an artist will come back to the fold and be excited about us bringing fresh strategy and impetus to what they’re doing,” says PIAS UK MD Jason Rackham. Anselmetti praises PIAS as having “passionate music-lovers in every department and function” and says he has high hopes for the future. “We want to be a great creative label that supports the artists throughout, rather than just trying to churn them out,” he says. “We obviously want to be successful but Colin [Schaverien, co-founder] and I were never really driven by money, it’s always been about the quality and being able to release stuff that we’re proud of.”

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