Simon Napier-Bell’s Secrets of Superstar (DJ) Success
“The differences were vague. Pop was the instant hit, formulated, tidy like a snapshot. Rock was disorganised, less packaged. Pop was conformist. Rock was anti-social. Pop was a song. Rock was a lifestyle.”
Writing in his latest book TA-RA-RA-BOOM-DE-AY (a must read- often hilarious history of the machinations and mechanics of the music business) Simon Napier-Bell is as blunt as he’s precise in his analysis of how 60s counter culture revolutionized pop music.
“In order to be considered rock, the personal style of the person performing had to be just right too,” says Simon.
“If a singer became rock instead of pop, they crossed the line from entertainer to true artist. To do it, they toughened up their music, ran their songs longer when they played live, behaved in a more anti-social manner, were rude to anyone who offered advice, and told journalists to fuck off.”
So what similarities between rock and pop does he see in today’s electronic dance music divisions between ‘EDM’ and ‘underground’.
“It’s different actually,” he suggests.
“No one is trying to cross-over from being pop/EDM to being underground, it’s more the other way round. These days credibility is money – underground DJs eye EDM money jealously.”
“In the days when rock was evolving from pop, all pop stars wanted to be rock stars. Now many of the underground dance people would like to get into the money-making mainstream of EDM.”
Managing the likes of Wham, Marc Bolan, Japan and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page (during his Yardbirds phase) Simon’s certainly eminently qualified to discuss the dynamics of credibility, fame and success so does he think underground DJs who achieve crossover pop- or EDM – success can ever realistically regain underground respect?
“They swap underground credibility and respect for respect as true music business maestros – in other words, they’ve conquered the ‘business’ and become rich and influential.”
“But the moment when any ‘credible’ artist makes the attempt to crossover to pop (or underground artist cross over to EDM) is fraught with difficulty. Their audience will reject them the second they see them try for commerciality – so they really only get one shot at it. If they fail, there’s no going back,” he says.
“On the other hand, if they succeed, over time they usually get their original credible fan-base back too.”
“Let’s face it – the whole thing is a façade,” he adds. “Being strictly underground is playing safe – you have your niche market and it will keep you in gigs and money to live. Of course you want the big time like everyone else, but simply to admit that is to endanger what you already have.”
“Jonty – you can’t persuade me you wouldn’t like to earn 30 million a year and play for crowds in Vegas of 100,000 a night,” he continues, “But if you tried and failed, you’d have lost your niche market and would have to go back to selling the Big Issue.”
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): EDM (to me) really seems to have taken the lowest common denominator to entirely new depths of banality: what do you make of it? Just why is it so incredibly popular?
Simon Napier-Bell: “Pop is always popular, and often banal. There’s no snobbery in pop so people creating it are never afraid to try out new ideas, however cheesy. People creating so-called ‘cred’ music, or maybe underground, are always wary of doing anything that will be called cheesy – though in fact, in their efforts to remain credible they often create music that is equally banal, just hard-to-listen to banal, rather than pop’s banality which is so easy to listen to it makes you sick.”
Skrufff: Drawing on parallels, how much do you see EDM as a bubble that will inevitably pop? Or are we in a new paradigm?
Simon Napier-Bell: “Who can say when bubbles will burst? Who could ever have forecast in the early ‘80s that rap would still be around today? It seemed like a quick trend we’d all get bored of in a couple of years. Wow, were we ever wrong!
Skrufff: What fate should today’s EDM stars expect? What advice would you offer them when they stop getting huge fees and are replaced my newer younger versions?
Simon Napier-Bell: “Invest what they’ve made in property. Get out of the music business. And choose fine wine over bad drugs.”
Skrufff: With all the mega stars you’ve managed, what were the key characteristics that set them apart from the rest? Did you identify any/ many common characteristics?
Simon Napier-Bell: “Always an absolute overwhelming need to succeed. And always an extraordinary blend of brash egotism and the need for public display coupled with intense insecurity. In other words – all major stars are fucked-up, and fucked-up in much the same way – unsuited for anything else but creating and performing – they hate much of what they have to do but are terrified of no longer being in demand to do it.”
Skrufff: What advice would you offer a big ‘underground’ club DJ wanting to cross over to EDM levels of success without losing their credibility- is it genuinely possible?
Simon Napier-Bell: “I repeat what I said earlier: you get one shot. Think it out carefully in advance. Try to devise a way which will carry your current fan-base’s sympathy – once you get their back up, you’ll be in trouble. But look at it this way – if you’re really a true artist and true creator, you’ll manage it. But if in your heart of hearts you know you’re really second tier material, be happy with what you’ve got and don’t risk it all for something well nigh impossible. Would you sell your house to buy a 100,000 lottery tickets?
Skrufff: Is talent more important than ambition (or willingness to work hard) for mega success? And what about luck?
Simon Napier-Bell: “You need an obsession with succeeding above everything else. Talent helps, as does hard work. And of course, luck. But being driven is the key.”
TA-RA-RA-BOOM-DE-AY- the Dodgy Business of Popular Music: “Among the many things you will learn along the way are: How a formula for writing hit songs devised in the 1900s created over 50,000 of the best-known songs ever; Why rock music turned the traditional music industry on its head and never put it back upright again; How rap, born from a DJs pleasant asides to his audience, became the music of hate and rape – and the biggest selling popular music in the world:: click here to download/ buy: http://amzn.to/1nZFlM2