As one half of the terrific two-some Blood Red Shoes, vocalist and drummer Steve Ansell has been on one hell of an eye-opening adventure. He's played (and continues to play) in various seven-inch-spewing DIY bands - most notably the DiS-adored Cat on Form. The second BRS album Fire Like This (Recommended: 9/10 Review) has just hit your local record store, so we thought it high time we picked Steve's brain to discover what he's learnt over the past few years, shifting from the do-everything-yourself punk scene to the corporate-sponsored festival arenas.
Here's the piece, with advice for any bands who might follow this path, entitled: TEN THINGS I HAVE LEARNED: From a DIY band to a "professional musician" by Steve Ansell.
1) "Professional" doesn't mean you're any better at something...
...it just means you make a living doing it. Actually there are a lot of areas of the "professional" music industry world where people are paid to look after certain things or do certain jobs as their "profession", but in fact do them a lot worse than 15 year old punk kids do. Like Steve Albini once said, 'punk rockers can do anything, if punk rockers were running NASA we'd be drinking tea on the moon by now.'
2) Major labels are exactly like the horror stories you hear (and worse).
Luckily we only had a brief time where we had to deal with a major face-to-face and man it sucked. Major labels are completely out-dated and it's no surpise that they keep posting huge losses each tax year. They're not even good businesses, the model they operate on is totally inefficient and would collapse on itself in a matter of months if they didn't keep lucking out on big sellers like Amy Winehouse or Kings of Leon every couple of years.
Artistically, they don't understand music or bands really at all. Like anything there are some good people hiding in there, but generally, I've never dealt with a room of so many people (I have no idea what they all do but every decision seemed to necessitate at least 15 people) who are that unaware of MUSIC or THE INTERNET. It's truly amazing. They also live in constant fear that they will be fired because "the music industry is dying" (this is a plain lie) so everyone is playing it safe, more so than ever. This is why half the music being pumped in everyone's face is just carbon-copy superficial pop shite. It's the safe option for them.
3) DON'T lose your identity
Don't get carried away with new-found attention because you can lose your identity. We played about 150 shows before anyone noticed us in the mainstream, and once we did get noticed it seemed like this exciting new colourful world and that maybe suddenly we'd be able to play to loads and loads of people. Which is great, but then all these stylists and photographers and editors and PR people show up who all have their own idea of what your band should be. When you're in a DIY band with no money, if you need photos you just get a mate to take them and they're scruffy but they look like you. We had loads of photos where we look nothing like if you saw us on the street because someone 'suggested' you wear this or that, someone did your makeup or fiddled with your hair to make it look more "edgy". And we were just like excited kids so we went along with it, there were free drinks and hey, we'll get loads of coverage which is GREAT NEWS right?
Except we fucking hate half our photos and videos because they're not us, we don't look like that and it bears no resemblance to the music we make. I don't understand how easily we got presented as something cute or fashion or indie schmindie but we did, and it was all a blur. This time around we got Steve Gullick (gullickphoto.com) to come around with his old film camera and take photos of us in our practice room or the road outside our flat, just wearing what we threw on that morning, and when i see those photos, I see something way closer to the real us.
4) £Free Floors vs. £25 Hotels
Much as I miss certain elements of touring in a DIY style, hotels rule. We went for broke and lived 'homeless' for a year just doing the band, staying on mate's sofas or the van, maybe asking onstage "does anyone have a place we can crash?" What's cool is you meet some good people, get played some new records and make friends. What sucks is you never sleep right, you're always ill or freezing cold and you can't actually play properly half the time because you feel like shit. A £25 travelodge room is boring as hell and they're identical all over England, but man, you can sleep in it, and it has heating. You also get some personal space which is very good for your sanity. It beats sleeping on a student kitchen floor in halls of residence, inch thick in grease and puddles of cheap Polish lager. However, it does mean you're not punk rock any more because punk rockers thrive on sleeping in dungheaps and eating leftovers whilst having drip-drip Japanese water torture applied to their heads to ensure they're KEEPING IT REAL and suffering at all times.
5) ALWAYS pay attention to where the money is going.
Yes it sounds really business-minded, and ugly, and like you're some sort of dollar-sniffing maniac hellbent on buying a swimming pool but actually, paying attention to your money is just standing up for yourself. If you don't, you will get ripped off left right and centre by everyone around you. The way the music industry is set up means that everyone involved with you will make more money than your band, and when your band dies, everyone can go work with another band. Except for you. So paying attention to the pennies is crucial, and that means everything from how much you pay your sound engineer or driver, how much your t-shirts cost and how much you sell them for, how much you spend on hotels, how much your tickets cost...
It's very easy to get paid well for a tour and all the cash disappear because you pay everyone loads of wages, someone suggests you need 5 different people on the road with you to take care of it all, and someone who doesn't care is spending YOUR money on nice hotels every night. Then when you check the final scoresheet everyone has earned a fortune and all you got to do was stay in a load of Thistle Hotels and there's no money at the end to pay your rent. The worst bit is when bands make a loss and it's standard practice for the record label to make up the loss - so the band then owes their label even more money and has even more pressure to make a commercially successful, usually rubbish, album.
6) Nobody will ever care about your band as much as you do.
This is a sad fact because there are people around our band, and a lot of bands, who really believe in what they're doing and will work fantastically hard to make things happen. I have a lot of love for these people. A lot of folk in the music industry are not evil contrary to popular belief. Actually they mostly start out really genuine music fans who want to work in a music environment and the issue is actually the system itself, which like everything else under capitalism, is set up so the workers are the ones getting ripped off the most. Nevertheless, no-one will quite feel like you do about your band, nobody will have that 10 minutes of suicidal end-of-the-world depression you get after a shit gig. Or that utter disappointment when you see they've printed your album sleeve on the wrong kind of paper.
There are so many stages involved in everything you do that errors will always creep in and you have to accept that. Because nobody quite shares your complete obsession with your art they won't notice those details. How could they? They ain't you. This is not a slur on how committed people are to your band or how much they care it's just a practical fact. They have other bands to deal with as well as yours. You will only be the most important band in the world to yourselves, so if you really want to make sure things are done right you have to keep a watchful eye on all the details.
7) Bands whose music you hate will always turn out to be really good people.
There's nothing more satisfying than finding out that someone whose music sucks is a total bastard but it seems incredibly rare that we ever get that satisfaction... and it totally spins your head. I know people who make a rule never to meet bands they hate for this exact reason, which is very sensible. The weirdest thing is that the bands you meet who are total dickheads are always the small bands who think they should be massive. We call it 'fantasy square gardens'. I'm doing my best not to mention names here because it only gets you in trouble. Then, on the other hand, bands that are actually really big are usually really friendly, approachable, and supportive - like Biffy Clyro or Maximo Park or Dave Grohl.
8) Never, ever drink white wine.
Even when you've drunk everything on the rider, spent all your money in the club after the gig and then ended up at a houseparty that has run hopelessly dry, DO NOT sink to the level of white wine. It will kill you stone dead the next day. Stone dead.
9) There are very different kinds of musicians in the world.
Some people want to make music with others, and some people really want to be in a band. As a band in the 'DIY' scene we were always ambitious to be as popular as we could be with our music. We never felt like that was even in question let alone something to be ashamed of. I thought a lot of the 'scene people' disliked us for that, which some of the them did - but more importantly, a lot of people just don't want to pursue that avenue with their music. Lots of musicians are more than happy to keep music as a hobby and something they can keep entirely separate from the commercial world, and although a lot of our ideas and ethics are rooted in the DIY world that's something we never shared with it. I always wanted a band to be my whole life, the thing I do all day every day - and it took me a while to understand that people who don't want that aren't necessarily just narrow-minded scene kids shouting 'sell out!', actually they're just not interested in that way of doing things. Some of the people are of course narrow minded I'm-more-punk-than-you idiots, but fuck them.
10) GET TOUGH.
This is the thing that I really didn't expect as the band grew out of a punk scene. In the punk scene people are generally quite supportive (the good people are anyway) but the minute you start getting bigger, wow, people fucking hate you. We are really not a big band, but we managed to cross some sort of threshold where the 'backlash' kicked in. We never expected that we'd be able to find tons and tons of shit on internet forums where people talk about whether Laura-Mary is 'hot' or not. Or people slagging us off to a really personal degree and being told we're not fucking good enough. We never expected the obscene level of sexism thrown in Laura's direction every day, people emailing directly to say things like "why don't you play guitar like a girl, you just want to be a man" and shit like that. We never expected that at all. Taking your band out of a supportive community that understands the terms on which you are making music, and throwing yourself into the big wide world is fucking harsh. You have to be tough or it will make you completely give up.