Straight Outta Camden
John Niven, Kill Your Friends, William Heinemann, 2008
“One thing you learn when you’re in the business of selling utter shite to the Great British Public is that there’s really no bottom to where they’ll go. Shit food, shit TV, shit bands, shit films, shit houses. There is absolutely no fucking bottom with this stuff.”
Though it could be describing this decade of X-Factor, Pop Idol etc, the novel’s loathsome protagonist Steven Stelfox is actually referring to the music business in 1997, when Britpop was emitting its last strangulated gasps and musicians only needed Camden post-codes to get signed.
Having entered the fringes of the music business during this time, it’s hard not to laugh out loud at Niven’s depiction of a British industry in transition between the success of Britpop, the Spice Girls and Cool Britannia and the Napster/iTunes/MySpace/YouTube developments just around the corner.
Unflinching and detached, it captures simpler times, when neither MP3s nor 360 degree deals existed and all eyes are on the Next Big Thing. And even though all the Next Big Things are all rubbish, there’s still plenty of money floating around to throw at them, and still enough coke left to keep reality at bay.
Stelfox is a sexist, racist idiot who displays a level of cynicism that is excessive, even by industry standards (think Patrick Bateman in combat pants, whose advice to unsigned bands is: “Fuck. Off. Seriously.”). But then perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps this odious man who is incapable of seeing beauty or appreciating artistry is a metaphor for the industry at large; one where retaining a cushy job is the over-riding motivation.
While not an amazing book, Kill Your Friends is nevertheless a hilarious indictment of the last days of the industry as it was. Today it’s a different landscape: CDs are finally approaching the prices they should be and bands don’t necessarily need major deals to survive. A musician friend who recommended this book pointed out that his band signed to a major in 1998 for more money than most do in 2008 (and were dropped after one album – probably for not recouping their sizeable advance).
The industry will always be there, though in ten years time it is going to be as unrecognisable as Niven’s hilariously acerbic depiction of the late 90s is today.
A version of this piece first appeared on The Guardian online.
He has a blog: www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 9th, 2008.