Kill Your Friends is less drama than documentary, says ex-music executive

The 1990s record industry really was full of the kind of vile, unimaginative weirdos captured in the new movie, says Lois Pryce. She should know  - she was there

Lois Pryce
Thursday 05 November 2015 22:01
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Melody makers: Nicholas Hoult in the film of John Niven’s book
Melody makers: Nicholas Hoult in the film of John Niven’s book

Like John Niven, I plundered my 1990s music biz past for my first book. So when I happened upon Kill Your Friends, I devoured it in one rapacious sitting, with the knowing nods and hollow laughter of a fellow escapee.

My experiences provided a springboard to a non-musical adventure. But in Kill Your Friends, Niven mines his 10 years in the industry to capture the whole grotty business via the narrative of Steven Stelfox, a psychopathic A&R exec who will stop at nothing to climb the greasy pole.

Thankfully, the new film-of-the-book avoids nostalgia. Far from being a period piece about a so-called golden age of British music, Kill Your Friends only serves to remind one how the Britpop explosion was the beginning of the end of all that had made the century great – the end of the eccentrics and mavericks; the end of hunches and creative risk – and the beginning of bland Blairite Britain, from which the UK music industry has never recovered. I know, because I was there in its dying days.

The brilliant vileness of Stelfox and the multiplexes of Britain were always going to be awkward bedfellows, so fans of the book may feel they are getting a watered-down version with the casting of Nicholas Hoult, whose metrosexual blandness doesn't quite fit. And although the screenplay was written by Niven, there is a sense of reluctant restraint in his script. This is a shame, as the real, dirty pleasure of the book is the almost physical onslaught of being party to Stelfox's fabulously repugnant monologue.

What the film captures faultlessly, though, is the stifling dullness of a 1990s corporate record label. The movie's bleached-out palette perfectly suits the grey-carpeted, glass-walled corridors of Unigram, the movie's fictional record company. Devoid of character and style, without the gold discs on the walls it could be any head office in any industry in any town. The top brass are not musical visionaries; they are not charismatic Svengalis, or even movers and shakers. They are crass, unimaginative boors with enormous egos, predictable tastes and even more predictable cocaine habits. I recognised them all, because I used to spend every day with men just like them.

In 1997, while Blur and Oasis were battling it out in the charts, I was working at a small independent record label in Camden Town, just streets away from the Good Mixer, London's spiritual home of Britpop. Although not to my tastes, the label dabbled with some of the lesser bands on the scene and there was a palpable buzz in the air, or at least in the pubs.

I was 24 years old, had come up through the ranks of record-shop jobs and could not have been happier to be paid a pittance to absorb music all day. I even enjoyed my official hangover task of stuffing 7in singles into cardboard mailers.

The main thing was, we all loved music. It really was that simple. Even the label owner, a volatile Japanese weirdo, loved music. That's why we were there. It never occurred to me that it was possible to work at a record company and not love music. That revelation came a few years later when I found myself on the dark side – promoted and better paid – at a corporate label that bore an uncanny resemblance to Unigram.

Here was my first experience of music industry people who actually took pride in how little they cared about music. They talked about "units" and "product" and sneered about the artists who paid their wages while sucking up to them with expense-account lunches. "It's just pieces of plastic," they would say when anyone showed any genuine interest in making something good. If pushed, they would probably admit to having owned a New Order single in the early 1980s or bought London Calling when it came out, but it was dismissed as youthful folly. Nowadays they just talked about what was on TV the night before. I couldn't understand what they were doing there.

In Kill Your Friends, the eager junior talent scout, brilliantly played by Craig Roberts, is openly mocked for making the rookie mistake of trying to talk about music with his superiors. His nerdiness is only considered worthwhile when it can be employed to schmooze a hot new act that Stelfox loathes but is desperate to sign, in order to get one over on his A&R rivals. "Just talk to them about Tom Verlaine fucking guitar solos or something", he sneers at the hapless scout.

The author ‘absorbing’ a copy of Music Week magazine

I have lived that moment – I was that eager music nerd. I, too, believed I had something to offer the record industry with my extensive and interestingly filed record collection and my encyclopedic knowledge of obscure music facts. It seemed I was wrong.

My approach may be considered naïve but even now, with 20 years of hindsight, I don't believe it to be so. The true success stories of the music business are men (because they mostly are men) who understand that you have to care about the money and the music. And although Stelfox doesn't get his comeuppance, he ultimately fails in his work because he only cares about the money.

Berry Gordy, of Motown Records, famously claimed that money had never been the "main thing" for him. And decades later Rick Rubin was making a similar statement. "I never had the feeling I ever had to make a dime doing anything," he said, talking about his role in creating Def Jam and American Recordings. Stelfox, however, has no truck with that approach. "Asking me what music I like is like asking a Forex trader what their favourite currency is," he says. The movie opens with a close-up of his feet, encased in a particularly revolting pair of shiny loafers. "Do these look like the shoes of someone that gives a fuck about the Velvet Underground?" his disembodied voice asks. It's a pithy summing-up of what is wrong with every major record label.

Producer Gregor Cameron, actor Nicholas Hoult and John Niven on the set of 'Kill Your Friends'

We, the fans, the music nerds, can tolerate this level of cynicism in almost any other industry. But how can anyone work in the music business and not care about the Velvets, we wonder, aghast. Bankers, futures traders and insurance salesmen are supposed to be like this. But we just can't stomach it when it comes to our beloved records. We can stomach shysters, sharks, bullies, even criminals – the industry has played host to plenty of those over the years – they're all welcome as long as they love the music. If anything, these characters add the colour and mystique that makes the business so compelling to the outsider. But it is an industry built entirely on human emotions; without that understanding you might make a quick buck with a cheesy club hit or a TV theme tune, but you will never build an empire.

So where do the Steven Stelfoxes stand in today's industry, where even big-name artists with large followings are releasing their own records using crowdfunding platforms, and connecting directly with their fanbase through social media? Have the once-mighty curators of our record collections lost their powers? Some industry leaders have declared the days of A&R to be numbered and certainly the hungry young buck hustling his way around pokey gigs every night of the week are long gone. Seth Hodder, A&R at Mute during the 1990s and now at Budde Music Publishing, says there is still a place for them but that the industry is a more serious, hard-working environment in these digital days. A&R is still pretty much male-dominated, he says, everyone still knows each other and hangs out together but there's less money thrown around and more at stake now. Kill Your Friends, he is quick to point out, is very much a snapshot of 1990s major label culture, not the indies.

Unlike so many music biopics, watching Kill Your Friends does not make one long for the good old days. In fact, there is a pleasing sense of schadenfreude, knowing that while Stelfox and his ilk were snorting their expense accounts and bullying their underlings, three guys on the other side of the Atlantic were busy inventing something called Napster … although they probably didn't give a fuck about the Velvet Underground either.

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