Where Commerce Sleeps with Art – Promoting Andromeda Heights

andromedaSomething a little different again.

As I’ve been going through the interviews, particularly the ones around “Andromeda Heights” and “Let’s Change the World With Music”, I’ve been struck by how Sony/CBS slightly take the role of mysterious and philistinic villains, putting pressure on Paddy to change what he had done and sniffing at his demos. To be fair, he’s backtracked on that quite a lot anyway, and in the period 1992 to 1997 it’s clear he was having something of a personal crisis, which coloured what he said at the time, but it seemed to me a little one sided.

And there’s also a part of me that likes delving behind the public façade and having a look at the machinery. In my day job I work in a product marketing role, and the analogous part of the music business fascinates me.

Although as fans we rather discount the commercial part of the business, it is what drives the sales that generates the art. A promotional campaign is a lot of work, it’s a complex business to plan and schedule, and it doesn’t just happen. The people involved aren’t faceless corporate suits either, they’re enthusiastic and dedicated and often fans of the artists they are promoting. I doubt you could do the job if you weren’t.

The impetus to find the other side of the story came a few weeks ago when I was doing a trawl in Google books for interviews, and found an article from Billboard Magazine from May 1997 relating to the industry side of “Andromeda Heights”, which is included as the first section below. You see the nuts and bolts of the operation, and also some of the numbers in which previous Sprout albums had sold – at the Jordan/Life of Surprises they were a substantial proposition in the UK. It’s easy to forget that.

“Andromeda Heights” was a big point of transition for Prefab Sprout. For me it’s a good album, and the title song in particular is one of the best in the catalogue, but it’s an album where the “sound world” was the focus, more than the songs. And the sound world, although interesting – I love the strange little instrumental interludes here and there, and it’s a great listen in headphones – was a little ersatz and dated. It feels a little inward looking, as if we’re observing a party we’re not quite part of.

I guess the reason for that was substantially coming from Paddy’s personal crisis at the time. I think what had happened is that he’d been knocked back, and had got into a bit of a obsessive loop around doing “Earth the Story So Far”. As that progressed he realised it was far too ambitious and that when it came to the crunch it wouldn’t work, that it would be too expensive and probably not something with mass appeal, and at some stage he was going to have to come clean about that with Sony. So he got himself into a depressive/procrastinatory spiral, and avoided completing it. The commission work for Jimmy Nail was, after all, paying the bills.

Eventually he figured he should put something out, and rather like with “Crimson/Red” later he selected some songs he liked – fairly simple songs he was confident with – and recorded them. But having a home studio, and having become interested in production, and wanting it to sound as good as “Earth” probably did in his head, the angle he chose was soundscape based introspection, rather than the song based directness and swagger of “Crimson/Red”. The songs could never quite shine under the layers of sound.

So anyway, in the article from Billboard, Paul Bursche is mentioned as the Product Manager for Prefab Sprout. So I contacted him to ask how the promotion for “Andromeda Heights” was approached, and he very kindly took the time to give a lot of detail, giving a very interesting counterpoint to the “artistic” narrative.

Paul Sexton. Billboard Magazine, May 10th 1997

billboard 1It took Prefab Sprout more than a decade to build a reputation as one of the U.K.’s most popular and cultured rock bands, culminating in the top 10 success of 1990’s “Jordan: The Comeback.” Now its audience is at the end of a seven-year itch spent waiting for a follow up.

Prefab Sprout’s new album, “Andromeda Heights” is being released in the U.K., Europe and Japan Monday (5) on Kitchenware/Columbia (a U.S. deal is yet to be confirmed). The band’s personable writer and vocalist, Paddy McAloon, remains modestly confident about the act’s place in the contemporary scene.

“Maybe I should worry more about what’s in the charts than I do,” says McAloon who has resisted any temptation to change his uniquely opulent, literate style of songcrafting. “But a bit of me thinks where would be be if we all did that? I do have an arrogance about it, where even if you put me in a darkened room for 50 years, I know could do something that would be worth listening to, just because of the passions that drive me and my need for music on a spiritual level.”

After some years as a “bedroom project.” and then a local live act, Prefab Sprout (which also includes Martin McAloon and Wendy Smith) signed in 1983 to the independent Kitchenware, based in Newcastle in the northeast of England, near McAloon’s hometown of Consett in Durham. That year, just prior to starting a long-term affiliation with the then CBS, Prefab attracted attention on the indie scene with the album “The Devil Has All The Best Tunes.”

A gradual critical and commercial climb over the rest of the decade included 1985’s much-lauded album “Steve McQueen” which, renamed “Two Wheels Good,” became the band’s only American chart entry, peaking at No. 178. In 1988 came its biggest domestic success with “From Langley Park to Memphis,” which included the upbeat, radio-friendly single “The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll,” a No. 7 U.K. Hit that spring. Columbia puts current domestic sales of “Memphis” at some 330,000 copies.

When the “Jordan” set was released in 1990, Prefab Sprout was in the vanguard of adult pop acts, but the only album to bear its name since was the 1992 compilation “A Life of Surprises” which contained a handful of previously unreleased songs. That set is now estimated by Columbia to have sold 240,000 units in the U.K.

Prefab’s overdue return has already been celebrated in adult rock publications here, and early signs are that radio and retail remembers it name perfectly well, too.

“A Prisoner Of The Past,” the first single from “Andromeda Heights,” was released across Europe April 21 and gaine first-week adds at national rock and pop station Radio 1 and its older demographic, AC-oriented sister BBC broadcaster, Radio 2. It was also added at such leading commercial outlets as nationwide rock station Virgin Radio, Key 103 Manchester, and Heart 106.2 London. In addition, Prefab performed the single on BBC1’s mass-rated “National Lottery Live” show April 19.

The single is atypical of the generally soft, romantic mode of the album, exuding a strong Phil Spector influence. “It’s a big sound,” sais Key 103 presenter/producer Pete Mitchell. “A good return to form, and it’ll do well.”

He adds that the station still plays several of the group’s previous best-known singles including “Cars And Girls,” “When Love Breaks Down,” and “The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll.”

Andy Fordyce, chart album’s buyer for HMV says “I’ve had comments [from HMV colleagues] that the album is just as strong as “Steve McQueen,” which was regarded as a classic album. There’s huge potential there. If you look at bands like the Beautiful South, there’s a big market for that kind of sound. The album will be very strong for in-store play and listening posts and it’ll do very well throughout the summer.”

“So much can change in five years, but their fans don’t seem to go away,” says Paul Bursche, Prefab’s product manager at Columbia, noting that the label’s initial U.K. shipment of the album will be a healthy 40,000. “Prefab were never totally in fashion, so they can’t go out of fashion.”

Columbia staged a month of exposure for “Heights” in 600 up-market bars and restaurants across the country. “We got loads of feedback from that,” said Bursche, “which was great because one worry was that their fan base was old enough to stop buying records.”

Other tactics have included a mail-out to sister label Epic’s database of Lightning Seeds fans. “The other part of the plan is to say to people who havent heard of Paddy that’s he’s made a brilliant single and there are more to come [‘Electric Guitars’ will be the second], and he’s been doing a week of promotion at commercial radio,” Bursche adds.

HMV’s Fordyce says that the only blemish on Prefab’s prospects for 1997 is that it has no plans to play live. “We’ve given up on that. I was never really into it,” says McAloon, who is perhaps understandably wary of being sidetracked, since his absence from the spotlight is no reflection on his creativity.

In recent years, McAloon’s myriad other projects have included writing for two high-profile singer/actors, fellow Northeasterner (or “Geordie”) Jimmy Nail and Cher. Nail recorded several McAloon songs on his two highly successful albums based on his “Crocodile Shoes” TV series, including the 1995 hit “Cowboy Dreams,” while Cher cut “The Gunman” on her “It’s A Man’s World” album the same year.

To concentrate on “Andromeda Heights,” McAloon, whose songs are published by EMI music, shelved his most ambitious project yet, a conceptual work to be titled “Earth: The Story So Far.” Still dear to his heart, he plans to return to that labor of love in due course. “I’ll put int on the computer. It’s all written, it just needs arranging,” he says. “I’m going to keep on writing the ‘little’ songs and if I come up with another more immediate album, I might put that out first.

“I write all the time, it’s just a habit,” concludes McAloon. “Even without a sense of an audience I would do that. It’s a necessity for me to get through the day.”

Interview with Paul Bursche, March 2016

burscheHow did you get into the music industry?

I was studying journalism at the London School Of Printing in the early eighties and with a couple of friends doing a lot of knocking on the doors of music magazines. In those days it was literally knocking on the door. You’d turn up at Smash Hits’ Carnaby Street offices and Neil Tennant would have a cup of tea with you. I got work at a variety of music titles ranging from Time Out, Record Mirror and Blitz magazine and eventually was offered a job at IPC’s new pop magazine No.1 so I left college to do that for several very enjoyable years. In 1988 Phonogram Records  offered me a position as a Press Officer, and two years later I joined CBS.

How and when did you come to get the job as product manager for Prefab Sprout?

I joined CBS as senior press officer in 1990 and so was assigned Prefab Sprout in the run up to Jordan:The Comeback. Once I’d met them a few times and been “vetted” by Keith  and Phil their managers they were very generous with me and welcomed me into the fold.  By the time Andromeda Heights’ release, I’d changed into a marketing role so it was natural fit for me to look after that album too.

Which other bands were you responsible for?

CBS was by then Sony Music. It had an incredibly rich roster. While I was there I worked on a massive variety of acts ranging from Public Enemy, LL Cool J &  Cypress Hill to Alice in Chains, Big Audio Dynamite, Kula Shaker, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Harry Connick Jnr to name a few!  While I was marketing Andromeda Heights I was also looking after Roachford, Jeff Buckley and  Clash albums too.

How was the industry changing at the tail end of the 1990s?

It was still just about the peak years of CD sales so a lot of business as usual. In terms of the internet the thinking  was more about how we could effectively market our artists on it rather than the disruption it was about to cause.  The first time I encountered mp3s was actually in our A&R department who were all sending demos and songs around to each other on them  as it was so handy. How right they were!

We were at the start of the digital revolution but the focus at that time internally was always on artists careers. It was a couple of years later that the impact started being truly felt and companies had to start massively re-engineering  their back offices, processes and skills sets.

How was the band regarded at Sony?

From the time I joined the company the band were always regarded as gems and it was seen as prestigious to get to work with them. It also helped that they and their managers were so likeable.

Was Andromeda Heights viewed as “business as usual” or as a “last chance saloon” comeback for the band?

To me the former, but I think it must have been hoped upstairs that it would restore the band back to previous numbers on hits and sales, that after all is the business of a major label.

Did you interact frequently with Paddy or other band members? 

I worked very closely with primarily managers Keith Armstrong and Phil Mitchell from Kitchenware, but spent lots of time with Paddy on all the creative elements of the campaign: the video briefs, the artwork and ads, the photo sessions etc. He had a lot of creative control.

What was he like to work with?

Just a pleasure. Firstly he was a very gentle man and softly spoken. But he was also sharp and funny and very self depreciating but  always bursting with ideas. It was like being around a poet.

Do you feel his unwillingness to tour the album was a major negative?

Touring would have been very helpful.  It connects you to your audience. It also gives record companies opportunity to work campaigns at regional radio companies and local newspapers and that all would have helped extend the campaign, but what hurt it more was a lack of radio play. The Sprouts were deemed a bit old for Radio 1 by then, Radio 2 wasn’t a great driver of campaigns at that time although that changed later, and we had very little going at commercial radio. What we could really have done with at that time was a station like BBC 6 Music.

What was the scale of the Andromeda Heights promotion?

The campaign overall was a good sized medium one. We spent a healthy amount on set up, and videos etc, we also had a good marketing budget for the start of the campaign. Had we got a big hit away or had a better run at the top of the charts  it would scaled up very easily but we never quite got there. I think we eventually got the album to gold but it deserved so much more. I think it was the Sunday Indy’s album of the year.

Billboard says there was a “restaurant promotion”, I guess playing the songs over dinner and getting a reaction. How did that work?

Yes there was. I think we knew before the campaign started that radio was not going to be easy, and that the band were probably not going to tour, so there was an effort to try and get the album “out there” via some different means. We’d been doing research on their fans and demographically there was a fit with certain restaurant customers, and there was a softness about the album that meant it could be played very easily in that environment so we tried a promotion with Cafe Rouge. We had stunning artwork on the album cover, a highly romanticised painting of a skyscraper by a then unknown artist called Ann Magill. I produced a limited edition of art-quality posters of it exclusively for Cafe Rouge who agreed they would play the album in full at certain early evening times in their restaurants. It was a cute exercise and well received at the time, and I had some great feedback on it, but ultimately it was never going to make up for a lack of exposure elsewhere. These days, for less budget, you’d be able to do 3 or 4 social media campaigns that would do the job better. It was a great poster though – wish I still had one!

What did you do next?

After Sony Music I joined BMG Records in 2000, little guessing that 5 years later the companies would merge! So they were Sony BMG for a few years before Sony bought out the merger and it became just Sony Music again a few years later. I was very fortunate to serve as Director Of Communications there for nearly ten years until 2014. I now run a public relations company advising individuals and companies on their reputations.

Any amusing stories?

Really sorry but not really. Thanks to Keith and Phil being so good I managed to avoid any Spinal Tap moments with the band but there was always lot of laughter.

One thing that was always good though was that the lovely Wendy was always far more interested in the photo sessions than the boys. We did a couple of quite “arty’ photo sessions for Andromeda Heights with the brilliant stylist William Baker and photographer Andrew McPherson. Wendy would be throwing herself into them and was massively on the same page as William and Andrew.  Paddy and Martin would revert into being Georgie lads and grumbling about all the fuss and bother and laughing at Wendy’s keenness. But I think they loved it really!

 

 

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