Second life: What happens when Next Big Things fail to hit the big time?
You've signed to a major record label and you're being touted as the Next Big Thing. Suddenly, before you know it, you're the Last Small Nothing. Do you give up? Do you hell!
It's the dream. You're a young artist who has mooned over the idea of superstardom in your bedroom while strumming that guitar, playing on the laptop or singing into a hairbrush. A bit of internet hype here, a choice support slot there, a chance meeting with someone who knows all the right people, and suddenly the big labels have come a-calling. The music world is your oyster.
But what if that oyster turns bad?
Labels these days have their eyes permanently turned towards the Next Big Thing, throwing money at a multitude of projects to see what sticks – and ditching anything that doesn't. Blogs, start-of-year lists and "Sound of…" polls thrust young artists into the limelight before they've even worked out what their sound is, and the bubbles of hype swell so large and so fast, inflated by glossy ad campaigns and photoshoots, that they can burst before that debut album is even out.
Yet imploding in one guise needn't mean that these acts – dumped out the other end of the hype machine with plenty still left to say – can't reinvent themselves, go solo, change their style, name or niche.
We spoke to four such artists for whom the loss of a label deal turned into a chance to change direction…
The jazz singer
Gwyneth Herbert, 31, had paid her way through university by singing in bars; moving to London, she turned up unannounced at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho and wowed the crowd. She was signed to a small label within a couple of weeks. "It's the dream, isn't it?" she says, with a hint of jaded hindsight. "Jamie [Cullum] was singing at the club, and guested on the album, and Parky [Michael Parkinson] picked it up, and then Universal came sniffing around."
She was only 22, but her next album, her major-label debut in 2004, marketed her as a smooth-jazz chanteuse and was, she acknowledges, "the nearest I got to a hit record – though in commercial terms it was a flop, given how much they invested in it – posters of me all over the Tube looking like some kind of wet-lipped crack whore, five stylists, a feature in Hello! in which I pretended to have a lifestyle I had no interest in… I remember my gran saying, 'Oh Gwynnie, you looked like Marilyn Monroe's dead grandmother.' And I absolutely did."
Musically, the arrangement soon stopped working for her, too. "I felt like a guest vocalist on someone else's album. When big industry is involved, especially early on in your career, it's so governed by marketing and demographics. There were a lot of people round a table discussing things like, 'So we need a track for TV advertising' or 'We need a track that's playlistable for Radio 2…'"
Herbert began to hanker after creative control. The plan on her second album was to write her own songs, but a few months in, label bigwigs announced that, instead, it was to be "an album of big-band swing covers of classics like Nirvana". Herbert snaps her fingers and croons a little of "Come as You Are" to illustrate the idea. She was having none of it.
"There followed six months of me trying to hold on to my five-album deal, while retaining enough integrity so that I didn't want to be sick every morning," she spits. After a long wrangle – during which Herbert found herself getting "really ill" with the strain – she left the label.
She's done all sorts since, including her own genre-bending, folk-with-a-twist albums (her records feature everything from drum'n'bass remixes to found field recordings), she's collaborated with experimental jazz band Polar Bear, written a score for a silent film, and her new album, The Sea Cabinet, a concept song-cycle, was recorded as artist in residence at the Snape Maltings venue near Aldeburgh; she's been working with both a prose writer and sculptor to create an ambitious live version.
Yet there's still no escaping that jazz tag: "Eight years on, I still battle against the 'Is it jazz?' question, which for me seems irrelevant." She even adds that, "For a while I felt I was scared of jazz. But now, over the past year, I've fallen in love with it again. It's no longer such a scary, dirty word for me."
The dance-pop producer
With a large record label, the need to produce a big pop hit can become stifling. Joe Flory was signed to Atlantic, under the guise of Primary 1, with the hope that he'd become a hit-making super-producer – the next Calvin Harris. "I was signed on the merit of my pop-hook writing, which is one part of what I'm doing, but it's not everything, and they weren't really interested in the rest of it," he says.
Flory confesses he approached the whole process naively: "I thought you got signed then you put records out. But you have to re-sell yourself to the same company – they're like, 'Who are you again?', because they sign so many [people]. They essentially want a massive hit single, so anything that isn't that is like, 'Why are you showing me this?' But it's not a blame thing – I did want to have hit singles, I just didn't realise that you don't do what you want to do. It is very calculated."
There was a glossy video and publicity push for his single "Princess" in 2010, but his first record ended up being pop music by committee, flattened out, steered towards more commercial directions. "They did spend an awful lot of money on it, which is embarrassing for me, and them. Because they had some faith in me, it dragged on a lot longer than it needed to, and it got to the point where I lost interest," explains Flory.
His album, Other People, was eventually released, to little fanfare, as he and Atlantic parted ways. "What I'm grateful for is being able to do that, and fail, and move on. They're quite happy because I'm not a big deal; if I had turned round and had a hit single they would have been really, really, really pissed off. I don't have any feelings of resentment or bitterness – it's just weird!" he acknowledges with a wry laugh.
After a hiatus, Flory found himself with the musical itch again. His new record, No Thrills, released under the pseudonym Amateur Best, was put out by new label Double Denim earlier this year to positive noises, and reveals a melancholic, rougher-edged, left-field angle to his dance-pop. "For legal reasons, I can't use the name [Primary 1] – they do own everything… and anyway, I wanted to have a clean start."
The pop princess
Sometimes, it's just a case of too much, too young. So it was for Little Nikki (real name Nicole Shortland). She's still only 16 – but signed her first deal at the tender age of 13. A manager happened to be renting studios at her school for auditions; she and two pals made up a song, for a laugh. "We went in, and just winged it. Literally a month later we were signed to the band manager," she explains. SoundGirl were born, soon signed to Mercury Records, and were whisked off on tour supporting the likes of the Wanted, Pixie Lott, Scouting for Girls, and a certain world- dominating mop-topped pop-poppet: Justin Bieber.
"It was sick; we were in LA recording, we were in Barbados, we did a photoshoot near Las Vegas…" says Little Nikki. "It was crazy, it all happened really fast. It was quite overwhelming – we were really young." While they were allowed a degree of control, she concedes that, "With a girl group it isn't really, 'What do you guys want to do?' There's a certain route you have to take."
They were doing all these gigs – and getting lots of followers online – without putting out more than a couple of tracks, meaning that "there wasn't really anything musically for people to hold on to". After a while it became apparent that, "It wasn't clicking. It was a lot of fun to do, but something musically – and maybe image-wise as well – wasn't working." SoundGirl disbanded last April.
But Little Nikki had contracted the music bug – and now, she knows what it is she wants to do. Her first solo single, the bouncy, urban-pop "Intro Intro", built a buzz, getting her into MTV's "Sound of 2013" list and a shoot for i-D magazine. But this time, she laid down more music before putting herself out there.
"I had a think about what I really wanted to be recording. I just decided that it needed to be a lot cooler – and a lot more like me," she says. "I wanted to do things my way rather than being advised too much. I was recording my album before I'd even signed with Columbia – so I could approach them and say, 'This is what I'm doing.'"
Little Nikki's next single, 'Where I'm Coming From', is out on 3 June
The classical star
Nicky Spence was in his third year at Guildhall School of Music when he was picked up by a manager and wheeled around record labels as a "thistle-clad, tartan-boxed tenor, to do for Scotland what Katherine Jenkins had done for Wales". Not yet 20, he was rewarded with a five-album contract worth £1m with Universal. He was nominated for a Classic Brit before he'd released an album, and performed with the likes of Shirley Bassey before the Queen.
Which sounds exciting – but he soon grew weary, and wary, of the industry's expectations and limitations. "It was all very manipulated, I ended up at places I probably didn't deserve to be at the time. We were talking about the second album, and I thought, 'I can't do this any more.' I was a machine. I wasn't in control of my own destiny."
With that five-album deal to break out of, changing direction wasn't exactly easy. "The legal side cost a lot of money. I parted ways with my manager – he jumped ship when he saw my heart wasn't really in it. I should have done that a lot earlier. These guys in their leopard-skin shoes don't always know what they're talking about."
Spence went back to training for proper opera. "I arranged a last-minute audition for the [postgraduate] opera course [at Guildhall], and they accepted me, with my tail between my legs. I put my head down, but it was hard to change the view of people that I wasn't the boy in the kilt any more," he acknowledges. "For the past five, six years I've been trying to prove my mettle. I was aware I couldn't turn up and be like, 'I'm serious now!'. You have to be serious. The proof is very much in your actions."
And indeed, his work speaks for him: he's been taken under the wing of the English National Opera as a Harewood artist in training, has performed in Britten's Billy Budd and in Nico Muhly's Two Boys for them; he's off to revive the latter for New York's prestigious Metropolitan Opera in the autumn. Before that, this summer, he plays the lead in Grange Park Opera's Dialogues des Carmelites.
He's delighted to have made his breakaway, and insists he's in it for the long haul now. "The commercial world is full of backstabbing. The opera world is, too – but usually you're singing an aria while you do it."
Nicky Spence is in Scottish Opera's 'The Flying Dutchman' at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (edtheatres.com/festival), to 19 April; his recital disc 'As You Like It' is out now
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