To Tufnell Park for a first-round heat in the Zimbalam Surface Unsigned Festival '10. I know that sounds like a random string of words generated by a computer virus, but it's essentially another of these "battle of the bands" competitions. In what sense it is a "festival", I don't know, but it is well organised on a nationwide scale, with the finals at the IndigO2 at the O2 in London. We won't make it that far, of course, because the whole thing is based around votes, and the votes primarily come from the fans that you bus in to support you—all of whom are buying tickets, so you can see how the business model works. The reason they have so many rounds is that your "fanbase" must turn up repeatedly to vote you along, coughing up for tickets each time.
So, yes, it is cynically exploiting the dewy hopes and dreams of the Great Unsigned, but one becomes rather inured to this after a while. We probably shouldn't have entered, not least because you have to pay a deposit which we promptly lost because we didn't sell enough tickets in advance. (In fact we brought precisely two people, one of whom—my wife—forgot to vote for us.)
However, we still managed to make it through to the next round. The system was that seven bands play on the night and the highest-scoring four go through to the next round. But on this occasion three of the bands pulled out at the last moment, so we all went through anyway, making for a very gentlemanly atmosphere at the sparsely occupied venue.
Gruesomely enough, the promoter mentioned that the cancellations were due in part to "death and road accidents". I'm assuming that it was just one death, in connection with a road accident, rather than a whole week of Final Destination-esque carnage.
Bizarrely, we have been here before. The Furbelows have previously been offered a gig at short notice because the bass player of the band originally booked had been killed in a car crash. I hope some awful pattern is not developing here. Eventually people will refuse to appear on a bill with us, such is the notoriety of our Spinal-Tap-drummer style curse.
If we were a death metal band I suppose it would be ideal. I wonder if you can sell a curse on to someone who might appreciate it more...
To Hayes in Middlesex for the London heat of something called Live and Unsigned—yes, essentially another “battle of the bands”. The schtick this time is that they don’t listen to any demos: instead you turn up and audition live. I imagine that it’s modelled on these Simon Cowell-style talent searches.
My band, The Furbelows, gamely tackle the mission of getting there. The venue, The Beck Theatre (we are surrounded by yellowing black and white photos of luvvies in productions of The Cherry Orchard and Blithe Spirit) is miles from the nearest tube station and few buses seem very keen to get close. I receive a string of increasingly plaintive phone messages from Neil, our guitarist, as buses pugnaciously zoom past the bus stop and whisk him off in the other direction. Alex is only two hours late, which isn't bad considering he has no money and usually tries to walk to every gig from his lair in Brixton.
The downside of this competition’s format is that they can’t let you play for very long. We turn up, wait for two hours then are finally ushered into a disappointingly small room with disappointingly weedy amps, plug in and play for two minutes. In fact it may have been less that two minutes—I know that this was the maximum anyone was allowed, but we had already learned that plenty of people are gonged off before this. Anyway we play until the panel of 12-year-old judges wave and beg us to stop. After that we have to wait in the corridor until a runner comes out and tells us that we’d been given a thumbs-down but wishes us good luck with our music. Then it was back to London.
You might well wonder why we went there in the first place: after all, an event like this is going to be searching for an act who have a good chance of making it big, thus increasing the chance that their success will reflect well on the competition, please the sponsors (and they had lined up some impressive ones) and build a reputation as a contest that really can put bands on the map. From that perspective, they are clearly going to be after something pretty commercial—which, with the best will in the world, is not how you would describe The Furbelows. But I always feel that it’s worth having a go at most of these things, because You Just Never Know.
And I must say that I didn’t really find it dispiriting. It was quite well organised and a lot of musicians had turned up—especially when you consider that this so-called “London” event wasn’t really in London and the venue was so hard to summit. Yet they came, contestants of all shapes and styles. Nervous youngsters in carefully thought-out band uniforms; relaxed, shaven-headed older and more cynical musos; sunken-faced grey-haired rastas; cool young jazzers sitting on the floor blowing out mellifluous sax runs like streams of bubbles; spotty, gangly ones with directional haircuts earnestly practising choppy riffs on their shiny new bass guitars. I was pleasantly struck by just how varied the styles and appearances were. It was a bit like the canteen scene from Star Wars crossed with the bustling arrivals lounge in heaven in A Matter of Life and Death. There were hundreds of them, they’d all put blood, sweat and tears into polishing whatever it was they wanted to polish—and the vast majority would leave empty-handed. And they knew that, but they did it anyway. On the way in I met popstrels coming out who wished me good luck. As we waited a taxi arrived to take another hopeful away. This hinterland of spirited diversity is the iceberg below the water, supporting the commercial, packaged bit you see. I left feeling rather uplifted by it all—perhaps not least because I realised that however oddball (and clearly inappropriate) we might be, there are many, many others out there doing equally oddball things. A toast to them!