A TRIBUTE TO THE ARTIST BIO WRITER
Is there no greater work of fiction in the English language than the artist bio? You know, the three-page laudatory pronouncement of some new musical genius suddenly discovered and spotlighted. Or how about the one that signals the mid-career change of musical direction? Or the end-of-career, where-have-they-been, and what-now variety?
The first is largely platitudes of the “most astounding debut of this or any previous musical season” variety, ultimately based on nothing but wishful hoping. The follow up bio usually has more meat to it, especially if the artist had made some kind of mark in the musical world in the interim; although it can become fairly evident by the third paragraph that the creative juices have dried up and they’re going to try something else now, in hopes of maintaining the already waning attention of a fickle audience.
But it is the final level of hubris that is the saddest of the three and generally the easiest to see through. The early promises and successes have been worn out and the second act didn’t prove nearly as fruitful. Worse, all of the previous character flaws that had gone overlooked or unnoticed now glare through. Then it becomes the job of the harried bio writer to take the facts of the matter as they lie and put that famous spin on them in hopes that this last gasp may catch the wave.
If you’re not sure what I’m getting at, read on. Even if you are sure what I’m getting at, what have you got to lose but maybe another few minutes? Like you have something WAY more important to do? Oh, come on.
During my 20-year stint at Warner Bros. Records, I provided the extra set of eyes to many of the artist bio’s before they were unleashed on an unsuspecting industry and public. Usually I would get a chortle from reading them because I would already be privy to the real story and would be impressed with the ways in which the writers in the Publicity Department had reconstructed those facts into flowery prose.
More often than not the basic facts would be incredibly boring, unimpressive or, worse, non-existent. The alchemist bio writers would then have to somehow produce something out of nothing. Or they would have to take the backstory of some jerk and make him seem like a real good guy. Or they would be instructed to take an artist from a privileged background and paint a hardscrabble life just for the cred.
To serve my point, witness the excerpts from bio’s of a fictional one-hit wonder at the three stages of his career. In the interests of avoiding any libel suits, I have taken various facts from a number of real artists’ careers and bio’s and thrown them together into a pastiche presentation, accompanied by the kinds of literary high roads taken by the unsung and faceless heroes of the publicity world – the bio writers.
The trick (and the fun part) is to know the jargon and break the code. The blue font is the final product, which contains the fictional verbiage concocted from the facts presented to the bio writer. The italicized version shows the truth of the matter from which the writer had to paraphrase, sugar coat and spin.
Let’s start with the brand new artist bio, a virtual snowstorm of hyperbole:
He grew up on the south side of LA, far from the glamor of Hollywood. He was born and raised in Palos Verdes CA, a wealthy enclave overlooking the Pacific, about 30 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.
While busking on the streets of Hollywood, he met a talent scout who had high-level friends in the music industry. He fell into a “relationship” with a drug dealer who had a major label clientele.
And that led to his signing with Miracle Records. One of the dealer’s clients was the head of Miracle Records, who owed him some money, so he signed the kid just wipe out the debt.
The first single was rushed released the next day. The label put it out it as is, just to get it out the door.
Everyone at Miracle Records believes that there is a diamond in the rough here, waiting to be polished by music fans everywhere. The label has abandoned this project and gone on to throw other records by other unknown artists up against the wall to see what might stick.
Then there’s the well-into-a-career-and-showing-signs-of-peaking bio a couple of albums later that always begins by picking up the story where the fist bio left off:
A DIY-style video of the initial recording session was edited for the single. Since the label didn’t want to spend any money on a video, they used some grainy footage from the recording studio security cameras as B-roll.
Based on MTV play, the single blew up and audience reaction led radio to play it multiple times a day for months. The single went platinum. An intern in the video department sent it to a friend at MTV who played it as a joke. Despite the crass recording and bad quality video (or maybe because of them), it caught on. Radio played it. People bought it. Go figure.
After the initial success of his first single and album, subsequent releases were met with critical and fan acclaim. The novelty soon wore off and the label dropped him and issued a restraining order.
And now he’s back with a new album of all new material and on his own label! He trolled around the web and found an investor who’s “always wanted to be in the music business.”
Instead of the usual lineup of musicians that he had utilized for his previous albums… All of his former band members are suing him for copyright infringement and slander.
… he has recruited many of the fresh crop of young musicians on the scene to help finish the tracks. He cajoled some kids from a local music school to play with the promise of “great exposure”.
And finally, there’s the over-the-hill comeback album which generally starts with a glossing over as to where the artist has been the past couple years:
The years of recording and touring took their toll on him and, on the advice of close friends and advisers, he called it quits. With no record sales and a precipitous drop off of touring revenue (as well as inquiries from the IRS and CHP), he tried to disappear and failed.
Now he has returned to the music scene from a long hiatus. He’s been serving four-to-twenty in a California prison.
The new album will be available soon for pre-order exclusively through an international music distribution conglomerate based in Eastern Europe. He’s going to put the album up on a Russian music site, which has a spotty reputation for stealing credit card numbers from users.
The tour will take him to a whole new audience … His old audience abandoned his one-trick pony act years ago.
… appearing cross country in venues where he hasn’t performed in years … The only two venues in America that will still allow him to perform are in Poughkeepsie NY and Oxnard CA.
… as per the suggestion of his new management team and booking agency. His new manager/agent is his AA/CA/NA/GA/OA program sponsor.
“I’m going back to my roots,” states the elder statesman of the genre. He’s pushing 40 but looks 65.
LOOKOUT WORLD! HE’S BACK WITH A VENGEANCE! He hopes to have enough success this time around to allow him to get back at all the people he hates.
Well, there you go. Another bastion of the music business exposed for what it is. And yet, whatever it is that these bio writers are getting paid, it’s not enough. Enjoy the rest of your day.
And my thanks to Davin Seay for the insight and inspiration and past bio amusements.