One of the things I find amusing about music conferences is just how many “industry people” loathe being subjected to music. Lured in by a free bar they flinch at the strains of some poor band soundtracking the scrum of label execs squirming over the buffet like piglets at the teet.
But I suppose it is with good reason. These days everyone receives such an endless avalanche of artist spam that the sound of a guitar tuning up is enough to have us diving for cover, so terrified are we of appearing encouraging, that we may inadvertently add to our already bursting spam folder. The majority of us are in no position to deal out music careers anyway. Advice? Sure. A favour? Perhaps. A big break? I don’t even know what that is, I’m just here for the vol-au-vents.
I spent last week at Primavera Sound in Barcelona. It was my first time. I was scheduled to speak at Primavera Pro on the subject of independent touring (particularly along the usual theme of sustainability) but I ended up being drafted in to fill vacancies on the “Politics & Music: An Uneasy Alliance” and “How To Build A Dream Festival” panels as well (which really cut into the time I’d specifically set aside to eat miniature quiches and ignore bands).
I had a great time – met some fascinating people and watched a bunch of amazing world-class acts. It’s a wonderful festival. So different from its UK counterparts. The sunshine and surroundings mean that all the pundits and posers are a lot more relaxed, there doesn’t seem to be as much to prove, the hierarchies aren’t as pronounced. It’s as though everyone is on holiday together. I had fun. We all had fun. And the really interesting thing is that we all seemed to be surprised that we were having fun.
One day stands out in particular.
It was the first day of the conference. I’d already been in town for twenty four hours and met a lot of characters (some quietly interesting, others relentlessly irritating – the lines would come to blur beautifully as the week progressed). The group I was knocking about with consisted of Malcolm Haynes from Glastonbury Festival, Mark Jones from Wall Of Sound, Pete Shelley from The Buzzcocks, Felipe Altenfelder from Fora do Eixo, Steve Knightely from Show Of Hands and my colleagues at Un-Convention. Martin Atkins (author and ex-drummer of PiL, Nine Inch Nails and Killing Joke) would later join our gang. I know I know, the whole thing sounds like an Enid Blyton book but with added mojitos.
I’d been busy wearing my serious face all day. No mean feat. Sipping mineral water between John McClure and Pete Shelley on a stage in front of an international audience discussing political songwriting whilst watching the translators’ exasperated expressions in response to the onslaught of accents, slang and questionable annunciation is a surreal experience to say the least. By the end of the afternoon it was time to take off our pundit hats and let down what hair we have left.
Un-Convention had organized a semi-secret gig at a gloriously dingy basement club called Sidecar. Carl Barât from The Libertines was supposed to be playing but called in sick so I got asked to fill in at the last minute. The audience (made up of a mixture of locals and conference tourists) were a lot of fun and didn’t seem to mind that a balding moustachioed dog-enthusiast had replaced the messiah-shaped wan heroin chic of Barât.
My set, however, was but an aperitif. The main event was Shelley and Atkins. These two men are absolute legends. Punk pioneers. Influential is too impoverished a word for them. With only one rushed rehearsal (more of a musical handshake) they formed a power duo that put all the young pretenders to shame. I’m not much of a mosher, or one for stage invasions, but their performance made me do both.
Beyond the visceral pleasure of such a sonic onslaught there were three things that gave me particular joy. The first was seeing Pete Shelley play Buzzcocks songs in a small venue. I’ve seen plenty of the original punk bands playing the nostalgia circuit (main stages at mid-size festivals etc) but to dance along to “Ever Fallen In Love” in a dimly lit cavern-like venue with a sticky floor and an ever-so-subtle suggestion of faeces wafting over from the toilets was pretty special, almost how I imagine it was the first time round (Pete can still muster a pretty convincing sneer!). The second joy was the transformation that took place in all of us. A few hours earlier we’d been wearing translation earpieces and waffling on about grim things like brand awareness – now we were jumping up and down, dripping with sweat (not just our own), being the people that, for much of the time, we keep hidden deep within. It’s not that one persona is more real than another but, damn, one of them is certainly more fun. The third joy was seeing Martin Atkins rocking out on the drums and then turning into a complete fan-boy afterwards. Previously I’d only known him as a sort of professional cynic, a sage fool almost, urging artists to empty their heads of all that spurious rock and roll mythology: “Welcome to the music industry… You’re F**ked!” he’d shout. But now he was mooning over his newly acquired Pete Shelley plectrum and gleefully pocketing his signed setlist before sitting up all night editing together the grainy gig footage on his laptop in a hotel full of scowling celebrities. See, we’re all in the same big chain of people who derive an incalculable jouissance from music – doesn’t matter how respectable we become.
Nothing at Primavera topped that night for me. It was just so wonderful to enjoy music without measuring it. Must do it again some time.