A craving for fame – and not the simple need to create, or the wish to have fun performing – drives the ambitions of many who enter the entertainment industries. This piece was written as an opinion column for The Word in September 2011.
The last record shop in my High Street closed down yesterday. There used to be three of them. It’s one more token of the digital meltdown afflicting areas of the music industry. But I predict that one big statistic will not show any decline at all. Technology changes everything except human nature. So I foresee no falling-off in the number of young people who are desperate to be stars.
Who doesn’t want to be famous? Actually, I don’t, because I know that I couldn’t hack it for five minutes. But in that respect I am unusual: for every rock star that drops off the perch there are hundreds scrambling to take his place. The singer-songwriter David Ford used to be among them, until he got older, wiser, and open to a different view of the whole game. “There was a time,” Ford writes in his new book, “when people swore I would be the next big thing. It took ten years of hard work and dedication, but I finally proved them wrong.”
Ford’s memoir, called I Chose This, deserves to be picked up by a major publisher and then issued to every Fame School student across the land. It’s a tale of hard work and heartbreak, packed with piquant details. There is the moment Mark Lamarr appears to recognise you across the restaurant, then strides straight up to the person right behind you. There is the awful, dawning lesson that each new level you attain is only like some nightmare ascent of Everest. Beyond every hard-won peak another looms above.
If someone has a true vocation then the book is not intended to put them off. But it’s a wonderful cautionary warning. Then again, how many wannabe rock bands were ever dissuaded by watching This Is Spinal Tap? Probably none.
The urge to create is doubtless fine and noble, but many are driven by a perversion of that urge. Instead of wanting to DO something, they really want to BE someone. And their definition of “someone” is someone famous. I used to interview young bands all the while, hundreds of them. It always struck me how few were doing it for the simple joy of making music. Instead they were shackled together in some grim pact of mutual ambition. What fun to make a noise with your mates, you might have thought. To show off in front of girls and stagger home drunk. But no, these boys wanted stardom and they had no Plan B.
Result: misery. Practically nobody gets rich or famous through playing music. But these bands began with the view that ordinary life offers nothing for the soul. Thus their inevitable destinies in civilian employment are sipped as a bitter daily draught of disappointment. I’ve learned to dread the social occasions where a middle-aged stranger announces that I once slagged off his single in the NME. He may be a plumply successful IT consultant on 20 times a writer’s pay, but his heart still seethes with all the hatred of a galley slave for the judge who sent him to Devil’s Island.
Fame ought to be a by-product of your art and not the central purpose. Personally I’ve always fancied a life of prosperous obscurity – indeed I’ve achieved the second part with impressive ease.
My local record shop has gone, but at least my local pub still puts on music. Sometimes it stages earnest gangs of young indie hopefuls; on other nights there might be a washed-up combo of grizzled has-beens. Funny thing is, it’s the wrinkly old goats who seem to be having all the fun. For them it’s about the pleasure of playing, not the anxious scanning of miniscule crowds for an A&R man. David Ford, who has seen all this and is still writing damned good songs, writes well of the real-world musician’s life: “The journey is the destination,” he says, “and the work is the pay-cheque.”