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A few weeks ago I had lunch with my brother-in-law. First we discussed our unseemly mid-life urges: his to do triathlons, mine to buy bright green shoes with six-inch heels. We then moved on to our respective professions – opera singing and writing – and the question of how one can go on getting better at these after having spent a quarter of a century trying.
He told me that following his last, flat-ish decade, he had recently put on a spurt, and was now singing better than ever before.
How come, I asked. Fear, he replied. He explained that when his existing contract at the Sydney Opera House ends he could find himself out of work. This fear was doing more to make him improve than rave reviews had ever done.
I was reminded of our conversation last week as I read about the heroic struggle between Guy Hands, the fat, tousled-haired financier, and Robbie Williams, the toned, close-cropped crooner.
For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, Hands has taken over the record company EMI and has had the cheek to declare his intention to run it like a business. This means firing almost half the staff and telling artists that they can no longer have multi-million pound advances. Result: various luvvies including Robbie Williams’s agent have been bleating, and industry experts have remarked that Hands is treating EMI like a motorway service station, and that he evidently doesn’t realise that artists need managing.
Artists do need managing. I have no idea if Hands will do it well, but he can hardly do it worse than his predecessors. EMI had made a total hash of it, as have most others in the music business, indeed in publishing, newspapers and in movies, too. When it comes to managing creatives no one seems to have any idea how to go about it.
The first big mistake is to think there is something called an artistic temperament that dreary suits need to tiptoe around. In fact creative people are born just like everyone else. If my brother-in-law and I are even remotely typical, three things motivate us. We need to make enough money to support our families. We need some recognition for what we do. And, ideally, we’d like to get a bit of satisfaction out of the work itself. It is all pretty basic.
One could argue that creatives are different as we are more insecure than, say, accountants but I don’t accept this. We simply articulate our insecurity more loudly – something that is made even easier if you have a newspaper column like this one.
The rot sets in when creatives start to be successful, and when their managers start telling them they are wonderful every two-and-a-half seconds. Praise is a mind-altering drug and needs to be prescribed in ever larger quantities to get the desired effect.
Look what happened to Barbra Streisand. All those decades ago, when she made Funny Girl, she may have been a moderately reasonable person.
But now she is such a raging, bonkers ego that she can’t perform at all without writing into the contract demands for multiple leather sofas to sit on backstage.
There are two reasons companies think it is a good idea to manage creatives by a drip feed of indulgence or what is called love-bombing. First, they hope that great work will result. Only it doesn’t. Such loving neglect makes artists into spoilt toddlers who have no incentive to produce anything that their audience will like.
Jeanette Winterson wrote two or three good books in the 1980s but since then her ego grew and her ability to write readable books shrank. Her publisher, Caroline Michel, “managed” the situation by sycophancy: “The biggest misery for me is finishing a book by you,” she once wrote.
In my experience, Americans are slightly better at managing artists than Brits, particularly when the “artist” is a relative nobody. All three of my UK publishers responded to my manuscripts with mild surprise because they arrived on time. They all said “Lovely!” and proceeded to do no editing at all.
In the US the style is to drop a love bomb at the same time as administering a swift kick up the backside. My US editor sent me an e-mail saying she was “in love” with me and my book. I was a genius and she was humbled to have the huge honour of working with me. She then added that the book was far too long, unfunny and it was going to need a lot of work. I loathed both the slush and the sting but I did as I was told, grinding my teeth. The result was a better novel.
Intelligent managing, with firm deadlines and tough (good) editing is in every writer’s interest. JK Rowling would have benefited from a great deal of it, and even Shakespeare should have been quietly told to cut that dreadful play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The main reason that managers fail to discipline creatives is out of terror that they might leave. Yet this is a risk they should be more prepared to take – as long as promising new stars are coming up behind.
Guy Hands last week gave staff a little book containing trite advice from many in the music business, including Joss Stone. He might have done better to include the warning from the uncreative world of investment advertising. At the bottom of each advertisement is the warning: “Past performance should not be seen as an indication of future performance.” Exactly. If someone wants to pay a lot for Robbie – or any of the other spoilt, past-it stars – maybe Hands should simply let them go.