The biz’s brightest new talents tell their stories. This week, it's Spotify music editor Joel Borquaye.
How did you get into music?
“I started a music website and radio show with my friend supporting emerging artists like JP Cooper and Mr ...
Keyboard wizard Roger O’Donnell has spent four decades on stage with bands such as The Thompson Twins, Psychedelic Furs and – for the last 33 years, on and off – The Cure. As he releases a new solo album, he tells us what he’s learned about keytars and rock star egos…
My new album is good music for self-isolation because…
“It’s quite reflective and probably on the other side of happy. Even in rural Devon, isolated as I am, I’m finding it quite an anxious time. It’s certainly not an outgoing, jumping around kind of record.”
I need to make records outside of The Cure because…
“Being in a band places its own limitations on what you can do creatively. The Cure haven’t released an album for 12 years, so I would have been quite creatively stifled if I hadn’t released any albums in that time. It takes the pressure off being in a band and allows me to do whatever I want. I still love writing for The Cure, but that’s a smaller window of opportunity.”
I only played a keytar once…
“I played a charity concert in Los Angeles. I was in the house band and we had guest singers. We did a song with Susanna Hoffs from The Bangles and Belinda Carlisle from The Go-Go’s. There’s a picture of me playing it – I don’t know what I was thinking. I was probably on drugs! That’s the only excuse!”
Playing keyboards in lots of bands teaches you that rock stars have…
“Huge egos. I’ll leave them nameless but one [former band] cancelled a show because the singer fell over. I put underneath [the post], ‘He tripped over on his ego, did he?’ The person in question sent me a private message saying, ‘I always thought I was ego light’ and I fell over – laughing! That’s what I’ll take away, present frontman excepted. Robert Smith has zero ego. To be fair, I’m hidden behind a keyboard and to do what singers do and be out front, standing there and taking it all, you have to have some kind of ego. You can’t be a retiring singer, can you?”
The Cure’s Disintegration was the first album I properly worked on…
“And what a place to start! I actually had this conversation with Robert quite recently. I always maintained we were just making the next Cure record – we thought it was good and that the songs were amazing, but we didn’t think it was anything outstandingly special. But he says that, from the very beginning, he thought it was going to be amazing. I remember a conversation where we were saying, ‘Good album, but it hasn’t got any singles on it’. ‘What about Lullaby?’ ‘Yeah, that might work’ – and then Robert started singing about spiders and we were like, ‘That’s fucked that one up!’ It was a good place to start my recording career!”
The key to leaving a band and then coming back is…
“Don’t go running to the press and say, ‘Oh they’re a bunch of fucking arseholes, I’m never going to work with them again’. With The Cure, it’s like a family and you just get on with what you’re going to do. I left once and I was fired once, or did I leave twice? I’m losing track! The last time I rejoined in 2011, Robert said, ‘If we can’t get on now, after all these years, we never will’. When I came back it felt very natural. You have an understanding of what role you play. It’s always been my role to keep everyone happy… Apart from when I get sacked, which is generally for making somebody not very happy!”
The Cure have endured because of…
“Robert Smith. You think about other bands like The Smiths; it’s a lot easier to keep things going if it’s a benevolent dictatorship situation. It doesn’t matter who else is in the band; as long as Robert’s there, The Cure will exist. I’d put it down to his single-minded determination, desire to make music and the fact that he loves performing. That’s what keeps you going.”
Leading executives from the UK’s major and independent labels are warning that the music industry will not be the same again following the coronavirus crisis.
As artists and labels focus on digital content to maintain connections with fans and keep campaigns going, executives have stressed the need to keep perspective and be reactive to a situation in constant flux.
“It’s important to be sensitive to what’s happening in the world and we’re really focused on ensuring that the tone of our marketing is appropriate,” said Polydor director of marketing Stephen Hallowes. Like all Universal UK staff, Hallowes and his team are working from home.
“People look to our artists to provide escapism from the troubles of the world, and at the moment that feels more relevant than ever. We’re definitely thinking more digitally than along the traditional lines of how to drive a single or album directly.”
Polydor’s Yungblud, who hit No.6 with debut album Underrated Youth last year, was one of the first acts to livestream a concert via YouTube after isolation kicked in. More than 200,000 people tuned in live and the hour-long video now has 389,917 views. It trended at No.1 on Twitter worldwide and featured on Channel 4 News. Meanwhile, Polydor’s Ellie Goulding, Jax Jones, Frank Turner and Gary Lightbody have also broadcast content for fans.
However, Hallowes acknowledged that campaigns will be affected on a wider scale. “One of the biggest challenges is that we’re unable to shoot videos or content, which is obviously going to have a knock-on effect on new records launching,” he said. “We’re very fortunate that we have a number of key records already out and climbing the charts, so we’re putting a lot of our focus onto those. It’s really difficult to say at this stage what level of impact this is going to have on future releases.”
Partisan MD Zena White, who is based in New York, said the indie has shifted its leadership style to “a more directional approach” amidst the uncertainty.
“Tours and festivals have now completely gone. Physical product is severely affected on both supply and demand, we’re looking at distribution grinding to a halt in Italy and South Korea and seeing the writing on the wall for all markets,” said White.
“Digital is seemingly safe, but we can’t assume that there won’t be problems with that supply chain too. We have a huge responsibility to our artists to keep our lights on and get royalties paid through to them as much as possible.”
White said that Partisan is hooking its business plan around, “Needing eight weeks to see where we are with the virus and eight weeks to see where we are with the economy”.
“There is no doubt that the world as we know it won’t be the same after this, however humans have an unbelievable capacity to innovate,” she added.
White promised “some incredible records” over the coming months, but noted that Partisan has reverted away from traditional routes to market towards a more grassroots approach.
“It’s building a groundswell, digitally, from the ground up rather than using external ‘moments’ as we would normally do to drive a campaign forward,” she explained. “We’re just trying to find a new normal as media outlets and DSPs aren’t necessarily focused on promoting new music now. There’s already an influx content hitting the web and the media are going to play an important role in funneling the best bits to fans.”
Beggars Group CEO Paul Redding confirmed that its component labels 4AD, XL, Rough Trade, Young Turks and Matador are adapting too. “Artist promotion is being handled via video and audio calls and we continue to support physical retailers even though that landscape is changing rapidly around the world,” he said.
“A greater emphasis is being placed on digital and we are exploring creative ways of connecting our artists to their fans. Even though this is an unprecedented situation, we are undoubtedly going to find new ways of working that will benefit us long-term.”
Redding said that the group is focusing on webstores and mail-order, too.
At London-based Defected Records – which has already held a ‘virtual festival’ featuring livestreamed performances from Ministry Of Sound nightclub in London – MD Wez Saunders is determined to “think outside the box”.
At present, Defected’s strategy is to minimise disruption to its release schedule, while Saunders confirmed a raft of new digital initiatives including behind the scenes content, staff playlists and an extended Defected Radio Show, which is broadcast in 100 countries to more than 20 million people.
“We will continue to create and provide content and to provide a service through the medium of music; be it records, playlists, radio shows or other things,” he said. “We are still here.”
The pandemic is having a huge impact in the sync world too, with production suspended on a host of music-heavy shows including Stranger Things and Peaky Blinders. A Quiet Place 2 and No Time To Die are among the postponed film releases.
Leland Music director Abi Leland is positive the sync sector can adapt, but said it is currently “in turmoil”.
“Productions are grinding to a halt, jobs are being lost. The sync industry is full of small companies, freelancers, composers, musicians, and this is brutal for them all. It is a heartbreaking time,” she added.
But Beggars Group CEO Redding sounded a hopeful note for the business as a whole: “One of our label partners said something I refer to daily. ‘Isolation has always been an ally of creativity and the space we’re being allowed will lead our artists and us to some incredible things,’” he said.