How to Fail as a Pop Group Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Fail as a Pop Group

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The path to being a successful pop band has been well documented in recent years. For example, in recent times, British TV viewers have been allowed intimate access to the rise to stardom of the group Hear'Say. But there is, of course, the other story. Exactly how do bands fail? What is it about them that prevents them fulfilling their dream of a sex, drugs and rock'n'roll lifestyle? The following stages will demystify the art of 'failing' in the context of pop groups.

There is little point in citing example groups who have failed in this way as no one really remembers them more than six days after thinking they were great.

Step 1 - Form a Band

This is, of course, essential and is usually achieved by gathering a select group of friends (say three or four, if you have that many). An alternative approach is to place adverts in the 'Musicians Wanted' section of local or music papers, or in music shops.

It is worth noting that the ability to play a musical instrument, while not a necessity, is desirable. The traditional line-up for a band is bass, guitar, drums and a singer, although in recent years the addition of a keyboard player has become very popular. There are various combinations possible using more than one of any instrument, but for a first attempt the above line-up will suffice.

If you wish to learn an instrument specifically for your new band, then the obvious choices are drums or bass guitar. Guitarists are two-a-penny and can usually only play 'Smoke on the Water' or 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', whereas singers, well - those who can't play, sing.

Step 2 - Record a Demo Tape

This aspect of working towards failure will have a crucial impact on how close to success you can get before you do actually fail. A poorly recorded demo tape will be ignored by almost everyone, but a great-sounding tape (or CD) will bring about a much more spectacular failure. Try to select a recording studio nearby that is used to dealing with new bands and book it for two days if this is financially viable.

Before you go into the 'studio' (as it's known in the business) you will need to have a repertoire of some description. Musicians (or singers) who are adept at failing will already have a bank of unused, mediocre songs that will suit your needs perfectly. Otherwise you will need to either record versions of songs by other groups (which demonstrates a lack of talent on your part) or try to write some of your own (which could demonstrate a lack on talent on your part). Be sure to practice these songs regularly with your group as this will improve the quality of your demo and increase your chances of playing live shows successfully.

These demos will need to be sent to as many relevant people as possible, such as music venues, local newspapers, music papers - such as the New Musical Express (NME) - and record labels. When choosing record labels, choose small, independent labels rather than giants who will merely laugh in your face.

Step 3 - Play a Gig

Chances are the first response you get to your demo tape will be from a small, local music venue, who may well invite you to play a 'gig' (technical term for 'show') at a 'new bands' night. This is an ideal situation to get a feel for failure as the audience probably won't be there to listen to you and your group, and consequently won't clap or cheer (except maybe when you leave the stage). Be prepared to part with more cash - some venues will 'sell' a batch of tickets to you expecting you to sell them on to friends or innocent members of the public in order to get your money back. This is commonly referred to as a 'Pay to Play' policy that has received criticism in recent years.

Someone in the audience is bound to like you, either because they are your friend/loved one or because they are drunk. Either way, count this as a success. A total lack of support at this stage is a monumental failure. Go back to step one.

Step 4 - Get Your Demo Reviewed

With any luck your demo tape will have been received by a publication that reviews demo tapes. If not, then you really need to think about just who you're sending it to. The paper will then hopefully review your demo tape. If you have spent sufficient time and energy on the demo it will get patronising comments that tell you how derivative your work is. If you have not, then your review will actually be a complete slating, at which point you can assign a low level of failure to yourself (something along the lines of 'Hardly worth getting out of bed') and start again.

Step 5 - Get Some Management

Music management companies specialise in taking money from bands in return for their services, namely to get some gigs and talk to A&R1 people on your behalf. There are lots of these companies out there who will promise you the world. Do not believe them. Choose one who sets moderate targets to which you can aim towards (if not actually at).

Step 6 - Get a Publishing Deal

This is not recording contract. A contract with a music publishing company is an easy way to generate some cash, but is not a guarantee of your band releasing records. They will give you money in return for a percentage of your future earnings from record sales royalties. The money will only be given to band members who write songs, so be sure to tell them that everyone writes your songs.

Once you have signed you are officially entitled to rub your hands together with glee as your improved financial status will enable a higher level of success before your eventual demise.

Step 7 - Play Gigs around the Country

In order to achieve a high level of failure one must first achieve a moderate amount of success. One way of doing this is to become popular (or at least reasonably well-known) through playing gigs in front of lots of people who might like you.

Do not (should the opportunity come your way) be tempted to accept a 'support' slot on the tour of a successful band - this could well expose you to high-powered music journalists. Should they like you and your music (although music is often secondary) your career will be front page news, at least in the NME. If they hate you and say so in their publication then some obtuse readers will decide that you are the best thing since the last best thing, purely to be contrary. If you are serious about failing, it is a risk not worth taking.

Step 8 - Record and Release a Single

With any luck your manager will find a small record label willing to release a single by your band and will then attempt to influence your choice of recording studio and record producer. Being overwhelmed by this offer you will more than likely agree to anything he says, but your choice of studio and producer must be carefully made. Another small studio will only result in the production of another demo tape (go back to step four), while a large studio (with a large producer) will corrupt your band's sound and take all the credit for any success you achieve - you will then be something like Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

If your manager is doing their job properly they will arrange for your single to be played on the radio and possibly to be reviewed by NME. If not then your single will sell very few copies and you will have a supply of Christmas and birthday presents to cover the next 16 years.

Step 9 - Build on Your Success

A successful first single should bring you and your band further opportunities for success before spiralling towards a pathetic failure. Small, irrelevant 'music' magazines may wish to ask you pointless questions in the name of journalism. You might even be asked to appear on Billy-Bob Thornton's Late Night Music Slot on Radio Banana FM. Whatever opportunities for slight progression/success come your way, make the most of them.

Step 10 - Record a Second Single

Having played all your songs hundreds of times during rehearsals and gigs you will probably be heartily sick of most of them. This will lead you to choose a song for the A-side (or the first track for CD singles) that is below par and will consequently aid you in your bid for failure.

Should your second single be successful your band will be edging dangerously close to what could be considered actual success. However, the chances of you having two good songs is fairly remote, in which case your choices in this respect will be moot.

Step 11 - Begin your Failure

Falling out with the record label is a good way of beginning your run to failure and can be achieved in any number of ways, for example by replacing your singer with a one-handed flautist. This is a rather extreme method however, and could well lead to a more premature failure than you should really be aiming at.

If you have succeeded at failing with your second single, your lifespan as a band is now limited and there are a small number of options available to you. Disbanding the group at this stage ignores the potential for slight further success and will leave you to start your next band without anyone really remembering you. Instead you should choose an option that will gain you publicity but still leave you a significant distance from fame. One possible such option is to play in a national 'Battle of the Bands' competition - one of the other bands is bound to have a member whose uncle works in the industry who will have fixed it for them to win.

Step 12 - Consolidate Your Losses and Start Again

If you have reached this stage then you will have achieved a 'Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory' level of failure. Well done!


In order to achieve a decent level of failure a band must first aim for success. Judging the point in time at which you should change your direction towards failure is critical - if you achieve too much success you may fall into the 'One hit wonder' category which will make difficult any further attempts at failure as nobody will want to work with you. Too little success will at least give you a basis from which to start again, therefore it is best to fail early rather than late on in your career. Think of your path to failure as a missile fired with its trajectory set too high - it should rise at a rapid rate before crashing back down to Earth far from the intended target.

Whatever you do as a member of a band, you should remember that the music industry is a cut-throat business, full of self-centred sharks that will leave you flapping in the wind while waiting to steal huge chunks out of any successes that come your way.

1Artists and Repertoire - employed by record companies to find new talent.

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