Trapped In The Overground: The Sickness Of The Music Industrialist

Keith Kahn-Harris argues that Ian Winwood’s startling memoire *Bodies: Life and Death in Music* inadvertently makes the case for the superiority of underground music scenes

Cropped from ‘Richey Edwards with Manic Street Preachers in Japan, circa 1991’ Masao Nakagami. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

The rock critic turned rock casualty is not just a familiar figure, but also sometimes a romanticised one – think Lester Bangs or Nick Kent. There’s something peculiar about how journalists interact with rock. They become close to the stars, they party together, they share their excesses. Yet the rock critic is often brutally cruel in print to those they party with. So when journalists get too caught up in this brutal world, who is left to pick up the pieces?

Battered and bruised from decades in the British rock music journalism trenches, Ian Winwood has emerged to warn us that, “There is something systemically broken in the world of music. It’s making people ill”. And that includes himself, for not only has he observed artists becoming casualties of the music industry at very close range, it nearly destroyed him too.

Now ensconced comfortably in his berth at the Telegraph, Winwood made his name writing for Kerrang! from the early 90s onwards. Mad keen and hardly able to believe his luck (he appeared to get his start with almost no prior experience), Winwood said yes to everything. He soon found himself being flown to the US multiple times per month, hanging out with his musical heroes, buoyed by the generous hospitality budget of whatever record company was paying his expenses.

His first British interviewee was Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers and since then he seems to have encountered every rock casualty in the business. I’ll refrain from listing them (and Winwood’s sometimes shocking anecdotes about them) because you know most of them already. Part of the point of Bodies is to draw attention to the fact that the suicides, overdoses, addictions and burnouts are somehow just accepted as part of rock culture. And that includes the music press: Even Kerrang! went through a period when abuse and bullying became normalised.

The book tries to explain just what make the music industry so sick for artists: Brutal touring schedules, unrecoupable advances, confusing management structures, the headfuck of mass adoration followed by mass indifference and – above all – an institutionalised lack of care. Bodies is all the more effective because Winwood has a stake in all of this. The son of a “functioning alcoholic” himself, his drinking and substance abuse triggered serious mental illness that led to multiple voluntary committals and, on one occasion, a suicide attempt. And whilst his closest friends in the industry did show concern, the wider business simply enabled him.

Now in good mental and physical health, Winwood refuses to accept that the sickness of the music industry is just inevitable. While he offers no easy solutions, it’s striking that the examples he offers of better practice are mostly at the level of the artist, rather than the record company. He hightlights the close friendship at the heart of Biffy Clyro that helped them weather singer Simon Neil’s mental health collapse. He admires the decision by Chumbawamba to step away and not to chase further success after ‘Tubthumping’ became an unexpected hit.

Ian Winwood,recording the audio book of Bodies

Yet the band is a fragile entity that often breaks under the strain placed on it by the industry. One of the most disturbing parts of Bodies deals with Lostprophets, whose success brought out the monster in singer Ian Watkins, who was jailed for multiple sexual offences in 2012. Their other members are still tortured by their failure to realise what was happening to their vocalist. While this seems hard to credit, bands can carry on for years as dysfunctional units that just don’t speak: In Mötley Crüe’s group autobiography The Dirt, Mick Mars recounts how none of his bandmates seemed to show the slightest interest in the very evident fact that his ankylosing spondylitis was causing much of his body to seize up. In his autobiography Confess, Rob Halford remembers that none of the other members of Judas Priest acknowledged his homosexuality, even when he would step off the tour bus to seek partners in truck stop toilets.

Maybe even the most caring relationships are destined to collapse when bands spend years together on the road and in the studio. One answer to the problem that Winwood doesn’t seem to consider very much is to not do it in the first place: To stay amateur, touring and recording occasionally.

In fact Winwood doesn’t seem to recognise how rarified his experience of the music industry has been. In order for a band to be trapped by an unrepayable advance, a record company has to be awash with cash in the first place. In order to have one’s mind warped by the live adoration of thousands, you have to be able to fill an enormadome. In order for a journalist to be sent on drink and drug-fuelled junkets to the US, there has to be a huge investment in the artist the journalist is there to interview. And for a journalist to self-destruct, it must be their full-time job to self-destruct.

When I read Bodies I kept thinking of the artists who never aspired to living off their work; the fanzine editors who have day-jobs; the label owners who keep the business going on little more than idealism. However frustrating it is to have to fit one’s passion around a day-job (or a precarious life on benefits), the degree to which this kind of music ‘industry’ can break people is necessarily limited. A debauched tour of small venues can be a holiday if you aren’t financially dependant on live performance.

It’s easy to romanticise underground music. Substance dependency, mental illness and other forms of abusing self and other can be found in the most obscure corners of the underground. Then again, they can also be found amongst accountants, dry cleaners and anybody else. And underground scenes can provide the security of community that is absent in the upper echelons of the music industry.

One name kept springing to mind as I read Bodies: Ian MacKaye. Ian Winwood doesn’t mention him (or Minor Threat or Fugazi or Dischord Records) in the book. Yet the sick and broken portrait of the music industry that Winwood paints seems to validate MacKaye’s puritanical attempt to build a community through music that avoids the abuse of self or other. Of course, a MacKayean music industry would also be one that lacked much of the glamour and excitement that draws so many of us into it. And Ian Winwood is clearly in love with the world that nearly destroyed him, or at least with much of the art it produces. It may be though that there is no way for him to have his cake and eat it too. As long as someone somewhere is making some serious money out of it, a sick music industry might be the only kind of music industry that can exist.

Bodies by Ian Winwood is published by Faber

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