Bella Union boss Simon Raymonde talks television – the drug of the nation, breeding ignorance and feeding radiation…
It’s sad and mysterious that in this era of Netflix, Amazon Prime and cable channels, there’s just one, not-all-that regular live-music TV show – the BBC’s long-running Later… With Jools Holland.
In the US, where there’s hardly any national music press outside of Rolling Stone, the surprising amount of new music to be found on the major television networks like NBC and CBS makes our output in the UK look simply embarrassing.
Some basic research I did a year or so ago revealed that in just one month in the US, there were 86 live performances by bands on network TV that you and I would consider independent and relevant, and on British TV there were only six – four by bands on major labels and two from bands on indie labels. Later… aired just 15 times in 2016.
This certainly doesn’t stop innovative and groundbreaking new music being created – indeed, I could argue it accelerates the birth of it. Some of the greatest art ever made was created without access to an audience, or any support of it by mass media. If you have to make music because you cannot live without it; if you have to find music you love because you cannot live without it, you will. That’s the fact. For most new bands, there’s generally no access to radio and TV, so it’s not something they worry about.
So, at a time when there is no music TV to speak of in the UK, there’s actually more wonderful music being made than ever before. There’s still an awful lot of dross, but we’ve become more adept at finding decent music and learning to filter.
Anyhow, super-conscious not to be one of those folks who just bemoans his lot, romanticising past glories, I set about making a ‘new music’ TV show myself. Fanciful, perhaps, but I am not one to shirk a self-set challenge. With the help of my brilliant wife Abbey, some great friends such as Glenn Max at Village Underground and Amber Millington at Agile Films, presenters like Jon Hillcock, Shell Zenner, Ruth Kilpatrick and 12 superb bands, we spent three days and nights at Glenn’s Village Underground in Shoreditch, London in 2013. We were filming with acclaimed director Alex Southam and a ton of gifted people, my sound engineer Iggy, the VU sound team and an awesome crew.
We filmed three songs by each band, with five cameras. A top-notch lighting designer was on board and there was an invited live audience. Despite none of us having any experience, everyone had a superb time. Most of the bands were new, but we had some fairly well-known names in there, too, all hand-picked. The show was called Live At Village Underground. I believed this would be the next stage in bringing some great new music to a wider audience.
We spent a few weeks making a dynamite trailer, deciding on one-minute, fast cuts of all the bands, with a song by Bella Union’s own PINS (the only Bella Union band among the 12, in case you were wondering!) and it looked magical. Excited and very proud, I sent it to all the right execs at Sky Arts, BBC, Channel 4, etc, and waited impatiently for the phone to ring. It never did. I tried another mailout a few weeks later. Nothing. Friends in the film world gave me a few other names to try. I got a couple of polite emails, mostly asking why the show had no well-known bands. I replied that the idea was that it was all about new stuff. No further communiques.
But the penny was dropping. I sat down with some lovely folks at the Beeb, who told me in no uncertain terms that live music on television just doesn’t pay. The viewing figures are awful and none of the broadcasters would touch it, no sponsors seemed interested, and that I should go ‘online’ with it.
With Boiler Room TV kicking off, maybe that was the right way to go, but I just felt that terrestrial TV was where this needed to be seen. I was certain it would get an audience in time because of the quality of new music we would be presenting. In hindsight, I was probably hideously wrong.
I probably should have realised! Even back in ’78, when I was a snotty 16-year-old punk, there was an anarchic weekly music show on ITV presented by Chris Hill called Revolver, with Peter Cook playing a grumpy ballroom manager who made derogatory remarks about the bands as they performed. It was brilliant, shambolic and very hit and miss, but all the better for that. A load of my favourite bands, like the Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, The Only Ones and Steel Pulse, were on the show. Seeing Kate Bush doing Them Heavy People lives with me to this day. Sadly, I think it lasted only about eight episodes before it was taken off air but, like punk itself, it burnt fast and bright. Maybe it’s time to revisit Live At Village Underground, but with someone else steering the ship.
SIMON RAYMONDE was the bassist and keyboard player in Cocteau Twins and founded the independent record label Bella Union