Interview with Mike Pickering by Melissa Gardner
Our generation undeniably has an issue with instant gratification; which has been hugely facilitated with the way that technology has been steadily infiltrating our daily lives since the inception of the internet.
From the unbelievably easy availability of getting our meals “Deliveroo’d” to “Amazon Priming” the latest gadgets, to our problems being resolved with “oh there’s an app for that”…
With the right money and the right online tools, we literally are just a click of a button from whatever we want, and faster than we’ve ever been able to get it in history. This instant gratification has in turn extended itself to the world of music, and not only how we experience it and what we listen to. It’s truly revolutionised the way in which it’s being distributed, shared and promoted amongst listeners. Back in the day we would save up for our favourite record, we would tangibly own that vinyl or cassette, we’d listen to it from start to finish multiple times, cherishing our collection of music. Nowadays from the plethora of online platforms available; YouTube, Apple Music, Spotify, Beatport or Deezer (amongst just a few)… We have access to explore whole worlds of music in seconds.
This internet induced revolution can be as much of a detrimental thing as it is beautiful in the way we experience music. As a millennial myself, I can only articulate the transgression of music and its technological influences so far…So I decided to speak to a music industry veteran who has over 40 years of highly decorated heritage behind him. Music producer, writer, and tastemaker; Mike Pickering is most renowned for his role as a Hacienda resident DJ. He’s also regarded as a pivotal figure at Factory Records (a Manchester-based independent record label|) signing artists like Happy Mondays, who were large pioneers of the ‘Madchester’ sound. Pickering now works for the Artists and Repertoire division of Colombia Records (owned by Sony BMG Music Entertainment) and also has a weekly “Afternoon Bangers” show on Soho Radio. In this interview with Interview with Mike Pickering I speak to him about everything from the atmospheric changes on the dance floor; from the ‘halcyon’ days to the present, to J-Hus’s latest album ‘Common Sense’….
Melissa Gardner: What would you say was a pivotal moment for you with music? Was there a specific style that inspired you?
Mike Pickering: “Well the first time was when punk rock happened. It was because up to that point, everyone used to think you had to be a musician in a band and that you had to be really accomplished. But to be a punk it was three chords… and just beg, borrow and steal equipment…So anyone could do it really; The Sex Pistols, The Clash.. you know they were just lads who’d learnt the three chords. So that was a revelation to most of us- and you know actually, acid house in 1988 and generally through the 80’s was kind of the same principle really. We bought cheap Japanese Roland 303’s and 808’s and worked from there. So it was that DIY method that appealed to me mostly, you could do it in your garage or bedroom.. whatever”
“…We sold 12million albums, nobody does that anymore…”
Leading on from that; with the rise of the bedroom DJ, and with the overwhelming availability of online music sharing platforms, do you think that it’s diluting the talent thats out there? Or do you think it’s a positive in that it gives a voice to people who may not have otherwise had their voices heard?
“I think it’s good. At the core of everything is what you write, and you can sit there all day but if you don’t write a good song; whether it be a club song or a proper structured song.. then you won’t last. It’s the people who write the good songs rise to the top, regardless of where you’re sharing it. So yeah I believe it’s a good thing, because these platforms are giving everyone the chance.”
I do agree with that, but do you not think that there are more people being boosted to the forefront of our current music scenes that may not necessarily deserve to be there? But thanks to the way we listen, share and promote music online nowadays they’re getting a disproportionate amount of spotlight in relation to their skills?
“Well..there’s a lot to be said about our current music scenes.. and to be honest a scene is a scene but a hit record’s a hit record. So these people representing some of the modern scenes will come and go but a hit record is forever. When the hits come off the charts they end up on stations like Magic, but ultimately they’re still there 20-30 years later. Because they’re good songs, you can’t take that away.”
A lot of our popular music scenes nowadays are heavily relying on autotune and are using an extremely formulaic sound . We have a musical sequence that defines our generations pop music, it’s called the ‘Millenial Whoop’. It’s a series of notes that alternates between the fifth and third notes of a major scale, typically starting on the fifth.. it’s why we get that feeling of nagging familiarity when we’ve heard a song before with a large number of contemporary chart content. Everyone from Kings of Leon, to Katy Perry, and frank Ocean has used this scale in their music.. What do you think of that change in chart music?
“Yeah I really do think a lot of the pop music that you hear on Radio1 has become extremely disposable nowadays. A lot of it really is just awful. Sometimes I have to listen to Radio1 in the car because of my job, and all of a sudden i’ll just be thinking “..ah God what on earth is this?..”
Back in the day if you wanted to listen to music you’d have to buy a record, you’d tangibly own that album and you’d listen to it from start to finish. Nowadays the majority of us listen to the “best” songs, or those that have become most popularised from an album or EP on our music streaming website of choice (Spotify, Soundcloud, Deezer etc). Do you think that online streaming has led our generation to have a shallower depth of musical knowledge?
“Yeah I do actually. When I was younger we’d have a newspaper delivery round or whatever, and if there was a record coming out, an album, we’d be ready on the morning of it’s release to go to the record shop and get it. Then we’d play it to death… and now yeah, you could just turn on your Sonos or Spotify. Whether that makes people pay less attention I don’t actually know.. I mean what it’s changed from a record company point of view, is that its kind of diluted everything. At the top you have fewer artists but they’re selling a lot more.. streaming and selling .. so you know, you’ve got your Adele, your Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Calvin Harris.. there’s less of them but they’re selling loads. The difference for a record company is that they’re not signing as many acts, because what they want is something that’s already big- they want an act that’s already hot. So either through streaming or their live work, they need to have already grown. so that the very initial development of acts has been done we looked at it to be done by managements of artists themselves. so they’ll get more money for signing but then they’ll have had to have done that initial work.”
“…it’s the one thing we’re missing right now- songs with a big message…”
So in light of that do you think the music industry has becoming even more superficial?
“No- I mean its not superficial its just realistic. Record companies are there to nurture talent and make money. They’ve never ben there for anything else.”
Do you have any opinion on whether artists should choose to stay independent or not in 2018?
“Well very few of them do, even if they say they do. Artists, for example Skepta, he’s independent but he’s through Sony, all his distribution is through Sony.. But yeah it’s good it means he calls the shots but you need the mechanics of a distribution and the international departments and all that to get you going. When I was growing up we worked for Factory records, and we really were almost anarchists then…”
So if you’d been born in the age of Instagram and snapchat, do you think that would have affected your sales?
“Well it would’ve meant a lot more tedious work for us. We used to make a record, and there was a lot more music on TV at the time, so we had to go and do all the tv shows and promote the record. Now artists you’ve got to be doing this snapchat and documenting whatever all bloody day, and building up a social media following.. God it would drive me up the wall. I do use Instagram though.. on a private account, but I’m still on it all day. But yeah artists are expected to do it all day nowadays, and some of them don’t like it. “
So do you think you would have been more recognised or had a greater notoriety as a DJ had you been DJ’ing during the social media revolution, how would it have changed your career?
“We sold 12million albums, nobody does that anymore. So no not really, all the old bands, the old acts.. we still sold loads of records, because people bought records then. We didn’t look online, or look on social media… we looked in the record store.”
So do you have a preference between how you sourced music then or the overwhelmingly easy availability and access of music streaming today?
“Well in some ways I prefer how it was done then.. but in other way the access to so much music is quite enticing- especially for the DJ in me so I’m on Beatport and Traxsource and you know.. all these kinds of places, and I’m on them on a daily basis. Whereas before I would’ve gone in the record store once or twice a week, relying on the guy behind the counter to go “yeah i’ve got this for you” and you’d go “yeah I’ll have that, thats decent”.
So what was the main medium through which you would share music back when you were DJ’ing
“Cassettes. Cassettes were the currency..”
With people documenting everything on social media, as a DJ ,how do you think the atmosphere has changed on the dance floor? How has the relationship changed between the Dj and the audience?
“I would put a jammer on phones if i could actually. You can do that with buildings, and i think that’s what will happen soon. There are some places In Brighton actually that i’ve heard do that.. there’s a gay bar.. and they’ve jammed all signal. They interviewed people in there, and they were saying things like “oh yeah we prefer it because we actually see each other, we talk to each other more”… I mean people who record gigs, when you’re stood next to them you just think “you’re actually missing the gig?”. They’re then looking at what they’re recording.. it doesn’t make sense to me? I mean what are you going to do? go home and have another look at it?.. I don’t think so.. Those people are going to Instagram it just to say “Yeah i was there” that’s what they’re going to do.. So yeah, i don’t get that.
So club life has changed for the worse in that respect.. I mean when I DJ, I don’t get that many people that want to take a picture, they’ll want a selfie which is a bit annoying… but yeah I mean the crowds still love going out and dancing as much as they did. Well they certainly do up North where I DJ mostly. I mean things like the Warehouse project, people aren’t taking pictures, they’re having a great time. So yeah.. I do think they’ll do that soon, putting a jammer on phones.. It won’t stop people recording though, because thats the main problem in my eyes.
“…when we’ve been the most successful with music, it’s been when we’ve fused different genres and different influences…”
Pirate radio and the free radio movement was big back in your day , it was a big platform for underground artists, MC’s and DJ’s to showcase their talent that would have otherwise be shunned by mainstream radio stations like the BBC. Illegally hijacking FM radio stations and being a medium through which artists and DJ’s shared the newest music, it was said to be the social media of its time… Since the birth of internet radio, these pirate radio “families” have dispersed (the legacy meanwhile staying strong). In light of the fact you’ve worked on both pirate and internet stations, what’s your opinion of this rise and flourish of online radio?
“Well yeah in the 80’s i used to DJ on Kiss FM which in those days was a big pirate station. Was literally just from the top of a block of flats in East London. It was a great station, they used to get people like Norman Jay and the Coldcut crew… So yeah I guess it’s different now, but I do love internet radio I think it’s great…I mean you’ve got stations like Soho Radio, and I can go listen to it anywhere in the world now. You can use apps like Tunein radio and if you’re thinking “oh i want to hear bluegrass music” …then it’s at your fingertips. I love that and think it’s amazing. There’s lots of stations like Soho radio that aren’t commercial, they’re not making any money, they’re just getting people on to play music that they love. Which is the same way, but only better, that the pirates used to be. There was a lot of rubbish on pirate radio stations, I mean course there were good ones but i remember hearing guys fall asleep in the night cause they were so stoned… and you could hear the record go “vrmm.,,” and you’d just be thinking “ Jeez someone go round there and give him a nudge” .Some of them were really so amateur, but yeah a lot of of them were amazing- Kiss was great. But I don’t see the difference in them and internet radio stations; cause the level of music that they broadcast now is still as good as the good stuff from back then.”
People have less of an individualised music taste now thanks to the freedom of options and how much more open minded we’ve become – not just in the way we listen to music; but by the music heritage we’ve accumulated up until this point. The average millennial listens to genres spanning all kinds of styles that often contradict each other…and we generally feel less inclined to obsess and “belong” to just one style. We have less defined subcultures and music demographics due to this, is this a positive or a negative?
“Well remember you’ve got things like Grime… and I mean some people still look like they’ve just left Shelleys Laserdome In Stoke around ’92… A lot of the style…it’s really just come full circle. But yeah ultimately I think it’s good in a way, as someone who grew up through an age where you were very limited as to what you got, it’s good. It means that the young people in this country are being exposed to a lot more different types of music, a lot more different genres. Which means you can make a lot more creations from it.. i mean it’s thirteen notes, it’s all there is.”
To what point do you think stealing, borrowing and recycling of sounds becomes a vicious cycle of nostalgia?
“Well when we’ve been the most successful with music, especially the British, it’s been when we’ve fused different genres and different influences. Even now if you listen to the new J-Hus album he’s got Caribbean, Ghanan, Jamaican and a London sound… all mixed in. And Happy Mondays, when I did that it was indie music meets driving beat club music, and there were lots of other acts like that around the same time. Yeah you know when different genres are fused in the right way by youth.”
We’re hearing a lot of good artists coming out of Manchester at the moment. On top of it’s strong music heritage, of which you’re certainly a part of, you’ve got artists from all over the music spectrum; Loefah to Levels, DRS to Dub Phizix… not to mention two of some of the strongest UK female acts of 2017; IAMDDB and LayFullStop. Are there any artists or groups that have emerged this year that you believe are bringing an avant-garde element to our music scenes?
“Well I’m not sure, but my favourite album of the last year has been J Hus’s ‘Common Sense’… and i don’t like a lot of grime, a lot of it just sounds like guys shouting to me.. but yeah I thought that was a great album…And yeah IAMDDB has just signed to Sony, and what’s good about IAMDDB is that, as well as being talented, everyone around her; the people making her videos, making her music with her.. they’re all part of her gang from Manchester. It’s all kind of DIY, in a way that’s kind of reminiscent of the way things were done back in the day.. There’s also a guy called Melle who Colombia have just signed, he’s this kid who’s bringing some good stuff in. And in the DJ world, funnily enough theres another guy called Melé from Liverpool- he did a record called Sleepless.. which is kind of like a weird African house.. Yeah he’s done a couple of things that are really good. But yeah you know, nowadays I think you’re right, people don’t follow artists as much as they follow albums or tracks… streaming has kind of separated it all. But when it comes down to it, I love the search.”
Okay so final and most important question.. what does our generation need in reaction against the extremely formulaic sound that music has become, when it once used to be used as a form of creative rebellion?
“For me, I believe it’s the one thing we’re missing right now. It’s songs with a big message. There’s so many auto-tuned voices.. singing about having shots in the club. It’s the worst lyrics, the worst rubbish I’ve ever heard in my life. So yeah… we need somebody to come through, that everyones parents goes “oi that’s disgusting”. I mean that’s when I knew I liked a band was when when my parents went “Ah jheez..” and “Oh God look at him he’s wearing makeup!”…and all of that kind of stuff. I remember thinking “Ah I love Bowie, I’m going to wear makeup” you know what i mean? And these people, well, they had something to say? I’m not saying that goes for all out current artists at all, there are definitely underground bands saying stuff, but they’re getting very categorised and pushed out of the mainstream. There’s room for a rebel.”
From someone who’s been working in the industry so long we must acknowledge the poignancy of some of Mike’s observations. For example, in regards to blocking phone signal in clubs, I really do believe he is onto something . Just last year band “Prophets of Rage” -an American rap/rock ‘super-band’ comprised of members from Rage Against The Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill took to the stage at LA’s renowned Whiskey A Go Go venue. Hiring a startup company called “Yondr” whose slogan states “Be here now”, the band hosted their entire event using Yondrs’ signal-blocking phone sock appliance. Punters phones automatically locking once inside the venue, the gig went undocumented by the likes of snapchat and Instagram leaving people to appreciate the event “screen free” and being present with one another. Yondr’s pitch states “We think smartphones have incredible utility, but not in every setting..In some situations, they have become a distraction and a crutch—cutting people off from each other and their immediate surroundings. Yondr has a simple purpose: to show people how powerful a moment can be when we aren’t focused on documenting or broadcasting it.” But realistically we must factor in how integral social media has become as a marketing tool to promote artists. On general, DJ’s or bands want or need that iPhone coverage, because ultimately if their name goes trending on twitter, if a horde of jealousy inducing Instagram’s follow from the event…or if a person of “influence” with a large social media following shares a snapchat story from their gig; then in todays world that is going to be a huge accelerator in their career.
Social media has also completely altered the way that music is distributed amongst listeners since the birth of the internet. For us to share new music from our online platform of choice, it really is just hitting that “share” button. So that new song, album or artist we “shared” is seen by however many friends we have on Facebook or twitter. According to studies carried out by the Entertainment Retail Association, we listen to 75% more music on a daily basis than our parents or grandparents did thanks to technological advances… So with more access to music than any other generation in history, millennials in turn have a much more diverse taste- and therefore we have much less defined music demographics (although we’ve got big things like our grime scene..and we’ve still got lads “dressed like they’ve just left Shelley’s Lazerdome in ’92”, as Mike pointed out) . The average young person listens to genres spanning all kinds of styles that often contradict each other…and we generally feel less inclined to obsess and “belong” to just one style. There was once a time when you were either a Mod or a Rocker, and it wouldn’t just be the music you were listening to, but the clothes you were donning and the political implications behind the music scene you “belonged” to. There was undeniably a lot more passion behind the music in times gone past…just reference the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the UK” that encapsulated the embittered voice of disenfranchised youth amongst economic decline and political unrest. Music is a reflection of the society that made it, so should we be concerned that a large amount of the content of our popular songs are about “sipping lean” or “popping molly” in the club? That the voices on our radio are often auto-tuned beyond recognition? Or that they’re often following heavily formulaic patterns with little melodic attention, whilst repeating phrases like “Gucci Gang” over and over until you can hear a Rolling Stone cry or David Bowie turn over in his grave…
So, as Mike said, the music industry is crying out for a rebel. Someone to break the mould, to shatter the wall of complacency that has been blocking us from collectively moving forward. His comment on how the successful points in music history have stemmed from a clever fusion of influences and styles, is equally as poignant. If we are going to constantly be stuck in this aforementioned, “vicious cycle of nostalgia”, we may as well be learning from our greats, learning from the artists who were so innovative and successful for there time. Take LTJ Bukem; fusing jazz, jungle, neo soul to drum and bass; his clever layering of styles was said to be a reaction to the “almost paranoid hyperkinesis” of some of the breakbeat house music that was becoming popular during the 90’s.. Take Moby; experimenting with ambient, techno and downtempo electronica; his album ‘Play’ sampled old gospel and folk music rhythms that set him aside from the plethora of electronic artists releasing music at the time… And stepping even further back in history, take Carlos Santana. He brought a whole new element to rock by fusing it with Latin and African rhythms into a bluesy concoction that will undoubtedly stay on our playlists for years to come…
That’s not to say it isn’t currently being done to a certain extent… One has to look no further than to Pickering’s home soil to find musicians and producers bringing intelligent and progressive aspects to what we’ve heard before. This year has seen the rise in artists like IAMDDB and LayFullStop who both use soulful vocals onto a mellow trap beat; creating a sound that’s been dubbed as one of our freshest branches of “Urban Jazz”. Not to mention the conscious and informed lyrics that can be found in LayFullStop’s “Bohemian Queen” released earlier in November; which confronts the misconceptions of women and what it means to be unconventional in the modern day.
So what our generation needs, what our music recession is crying out for; is for someone to bring an articulated reaction against the mundane and the formulaic. We should be afraid of this “millennial whoop” and we should be ashamed in our rising use of auto-tune. So to the bedroom DJ’s worldwide, to the girls and boys showcasing their music on youtube, Soundcloud or Bandcamp; you are born during one of the most privileged time to get your music heard. With all these internet platforms, and with our social media distribution, it’s never been easier in history to get your work listened to with this worldwide digital audience. By all means borrow sounds, sample to your hearts content, be inspired or influenced by as many scenes, artists, DJs or bands as you desire…but bring something innovative, raw or unique to your musical endeavours in 2018, because as Pickering said, the industry is looking for a rebel. A rebellion against what we’ve heard before, a rebel for our attention deficit generation.