Letter to The Sunday Times: Clare Balding

The following letter has been sent to John Witherow - the editor of The Sunday Times.

Dear sir

I'm writing to express my extreme shock at the comments you have made to Clare Balding in response to her complaint to your newspaper.

The Sunday Times is heralded as one of Britain's finest papers, yet your disregard for the reality of how homosexuals are treated in Britain today is  inexcusable.

There is no possible way you can justify suggesting that gay men and women should allow themselves to be the "butt of jokes". The result of this attitude is a society who believes it is acceptable to bully, tease and ultimately discriminate against another individual. It forces many to hide their sexuality out of fear - or in the extreme, lose their lives via abuse or even suicide.

Your position within the media is to respect this and encourage an open British society. Through your response to Clare Balding it is clear you do not accept the responsibility of your position.

I urge you to issue a full apology. Ideally The Sunday Times should devote significant content over the coming weeks to inform it's readers of how it intends to encourage writers and the editorial team to behave more responsibly. Organisations like Stonewall can help you and your team to better understand the issues facing homosexuals so that these incidents do not occur in future.

I shall also be forwarding my comments regarding this matter to the Press Complaints Commission.


Jeff Melnyk


Preparing Artists For The Next Recession

It's been hard to measure the impact of the recession on music since our industry has been in a state of change for the past decade. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Darren Shirlaw last week. Apart from the amazing coaching business he has established, he's a bit of a mathematician with an eye on the economy. He predicted our recent recession, and is quite convincing in his argument that we are heading for a double dip.

This isn't great news for independent artists or labels. If you thought it was difficult to keep afloat in the past 18 months, consider how tough this will be when the shock hits pockets for a second time. Even though consumer spending is unpredictable during a recession, no one can guarantee what would happen in the case of a second subsequent market crash.

Shirlaw recommends three areas of focus for any business to ensure you not only stay strong during the dip, but come out fighting. Here they are framed through a new music industry lens:

Risk Management
Something smart businesses do at any stage of operation, risk management means you understand the potential risks facing you mapped against their likely impact. To many artists - especially those that just focus on the creative output of their career, this process is probably a completely foreign concept.

From personal experience, had Gaymonkey conceived of the possibility our physical distributor was going to go bankrupt 2 years ago it may have stopped us putting all our eggs in one basket, and allowed us to bounce back faster. 

Artists should look at their business and consider the risks ahead for the next 18 months. The threat to revenue, live shows scheduled, partnerships in development. Get them out on paper, and categorise them into low/medium/high risk. Then make strategies to minimise the risk, and as alternate plans, or even appropriate insurance, for when things don't quite work to plan. Write it all down down - you might need them sooner than you think.

On the surface this sounds like something that only big business would have to deal with. It centres around how capable your business is at output - ie, does the business have the ability, skills and talent to deliver. Those that do can upskill their workforce, or keep the infrastructure working to weather any storm.

An artist might believe that their capability rests in their ability to deliver great music. Thats true - but that is a given - if you cant produce amazing music, you won't be in business. Capability here means do you have the skills to carry you through the challenges of a downturn? Are you able to manage all aspects of your business - even your finances or legal arrangements - if the market turns and you need to cut costs? Do you have the skills to negotiate in tough market conditions?

The great thing about capability is that its up to you to learn and take responsibility. And once you have those skills, they are yours - not matter what the economic conditions are.

The best of the bunch, innovation is something that no musician can argue against. All creatives are great at innovation - and within the music industry these days, innovation is what we need more of. Its not just innovation around your music, but across all areas of your business - from how you market, distribute, connect with your community, and perform. 

Critically it is about not wasting resources - finding new methods that cost less but have higher value (and lower impact on the environment, of course). The recession teaches us about attracting loyal customers and then keeping them. Innovative artists will be the ones that do this in the most remarkable ways.

Three areas for all artists to consider. What is clear - and as I have argued time and time again - is that artists need to prepare by thinking like smart businesses. Having a sustainable career in volatile times is possible - it just involves developing your strategy now.

Image by Banksy, of course.


Simon Cowell: Bad Influence, or Inspiration?

X Factor, Pop Idol and American Idol. They've all been responsible for taking talent, sucking any originality out, and spitting people to their destiny as bland manufactured pop stars. 

There are arguments that these shows are creating a generation who believe that fame is instantaneous and that being famous is a desirable career choice. Simon Cowell is the svengali at the centre of the phenomenon, and has made his fortune creating pop success. So are the programmes a bad influence - or an inspiration?

Not long ago I was ready to call for the end of X Factor due to the negative effect it has on people's aspirations. But wise words from my coach has steered me in another direction. She pointed out that Simon Cowell's talent actually lies in building up people's belief in themselves. He understands that the key to achieving anything is a firm vision of success. Those contestants that do not have 100% confidence in what they do inevitably do not make it through to the final stages. 

Strong visions are not to be confused with cocky arrogance. Last year's contestant Olly Murs is case and point - he frequently stated how much had to win the competition. But his belief in himself was not supported with a clear understanding of why he wanted it - simply put, he just wanted to win.

What is interesting is that the audience understands this subtle clue. The contestants that they are most supportive of are not necessarily the ones that have the best voices - but the ones that are most beliveable in their determination to progress. This is where Cowell's production genius comes through - his ability to reinforce the story of the artist and their dream. These are the moments that have the critical emotional impact that keep viewers tuned in - rather than the performances themselves. The likability factor is built around how genuine the audience feels the intentions of the artists are.

What Cowell can teach us all is how powerful these visions are, and how critical they become to earning success. No matter how talented you are, and whatever your business, career goal, or aspiration is - without the firm belief supported by your intention, your chances of achieving your dreams are limited.

Image by skip-rat from Flickr


Prince and the New Giveaway Generation

Prince repeats his album giveaway strategy by offering up new LP 20TEN to readers of The Mirror.

Meanwhile, the purple one has declared the "Internet is over" - and though he wants to continue to find new ways to distribute his music, if he dosen't get an advance, it's not worth it.

Clearly not every artist can make deals with major newspapers to circulate their work. And in a few years when we're all reading the news off portable devices (or getting it via our peers on Twitter) those opportunities may not offer the kind of return that Prince expects for his genius.

The biggest issue with forcing newspaper readers to take your cd home is that the vast majority are not going to listen to it. Are Mirror readers all Prince fans? The potential reach of hundreds of thousands of ears is desirable, but the sad fact is most of those albums will end up in the bin. A waste of time and resources - not to mention a terrible brand alignment with a tacky media company.

Last time round Prince also gave his new album away to those that attended his residency at the O2. That concert was brilliant, but the album sits in a pile in my studio, unlistened.

From the fans' perspective, buying a newspaper they would never normally consider is not supporting the artist they love. The deal is already done - Prince gets his million or so no matter how many copies of the paper are sold. You may as well download a copy from your favourite torrent site or borrow it from your grandmother's bingo buddy (her generation loves the Mirror).

We need to earn our audience's attention. Prince's attitude stems from a bygone era. His search for new ways of distribution is admirable, but in reality he must accept that the game has changed. If his intention is simply to continue to rake in cash, he should be getting the tour bus back on the road.


Label vs. Enable

Despite the fact that I in fact am in charge of a record label, I find it difficult to understand why artists feel the need to get involved with a label at all these days.

Sadly the intention to "get signed" appears to come down to cash. Artists have created something and/or want to increase their profile, so they seek out someone to fund, manage, distribute and market their product. All of which costs money - so essentially they need an investor. Enter the label.

I'm still astonished at how labels behave as majority shareholders in thier artist's careers. With high expectations, if the investment dosen't perform within its first year, the funds are pulled.

But creating music is different than making your average product. It is art - and it needs to be developed over time. Getting all your financial and strategic support from a label may seem like you have been awarded a fast track to success - however, this is increasingly not the case.

All businesses need investment, but the great opportunities of our new industry mean that any artist can actually ship their work themselves - and market it to a global audience. This hurdle that had necessitated both the network and the financial muscle of a label (never mind recording costs - which have also shrunk) is now lifted. Artists must realise that they have to invest more of themselves into their careers than simply making the music.

There are plenty of great examples of success by independent artists who have had the courage to step out on their own from the very beginning. Temposhark are a prime example - releasing both of their albums on their own imprint Paper & Glue. They bootstrapped their way into many a fan's heart with sheer determination - and some clever use of social media. Their latest album Threads was funded via Slice the Pie - the crowd funding site that allows fans to invest in an artist and even collect dividends.

Yes it is hard work - but the fact is it can work. Gaymonkey was set up under a similar premise - we simply couldn't bear the thought of working so hard under the constraints a major label would place on us. For us a record label is more than just injecting cash to take a share in an artist's success - we want to enable the artist to achieve their vision, whatever that might be. That involves working as a team, and each party taking responsibility for areas of the artist's unique business plan.

With the objective being to make great music, its a different business model to most - and one we're still perfecting. But I hope other artists will be inspired to do the same - rather than just look for a quick win from the men in suits.

Image by TheTruthAbout on Flickr