Incorporating The Music Fix
30th November 2009 12:00:00
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Push The Button: an interview with Planet Sound's John Earls

As much a part of the morning routine as tea and toast, the end (to all intents and purposes) of commercial TV's Teletext service this December will be deeply felt, not least by a few of us at TMF Towers. The 'working class internet' information service (delivered through the TV aeriel) was always there to pass away a couple of minutes, checking out the news headlines or weather forecast (it was during an advert break for The Bill that this writer found out about the passing of Kurt Cobain) and, unlike the BBC's vanilla service, the commercial channels offered a more entertaining mix of time-killers that became an integral part of millions of people's lives. The utterly surreal Digitiser video games section was, for a few years anyway, one of the funniest things in any media and the music sections (Blue Suede Views and, latterly, Planet Sound) were an oasis of thoughtful coverage. The fact that the service was beamed freely into the home meant many musicians became fans, with PS receiving regular updates from the likes of Paul Heaton and Nicky Wire - and the demo review section became one of the first places new acts would air their wares.

We caught up with Planet Sound's John Earls just before the service disappeared for good.

You've spent pretty much all of the decade on Planet Sound. Any particular memories you'll take away with you?

Plenty. I touched on that in an article about favourite interviewees recently, but professionally, interviewing favourite musicians is always incredibly rewarding. The maxim of “Never meet your heroes” is, 90% of the time, false so far as I’m concerned. Having to explain what Teletext is to Ice-T, Beastie Boys (“Tele-what? You’re a Teletubby?” as Mike D put it) and Americans generally was always amusing. Though it’s nice that The National, in particular, came to appreciate what Planet Sound did after we championed them early on.

I think that was the main joy, really, falling in love with new bands and being able to champion them. There are very few musicians I know socially, but I like to think that most of them respected Planet Sound if we picked up on them early on and that they’d always make time for us later. I like to think we didn’t turn on them later just because they fell out of fashion, either.

There was something almost Twitter-esque about Teletext: the very strict word count meant the reviews especially had to be very concise. Was that discipline quite useful?

It’s very helpful, particularly writing for tabloid newspapers, which I now do with my News Of The World music column. There are a few ex-Teletext journalists who have gone on to work at tabloids. Actually, I came from a tabloid background before joining Teletext – I worked on The Sunday People for six years – and Teletext is great for focussing your writing and getting the main points across concisely. I think music news was my speciality, and generally any news story can be condensed into the 100 or so words of a Teletext page, if you cut out the pointless adjectives (“pop princess Kylie Minogue”) and attempts to be funny in a news story. That’s a particular bugbear; if it’s a news story, just report the facts. Save your views for the reviews.

Of course, having to be so concise in a review sometimes felt limiting; a turn of phrase that just wouldn’t fit the screen. Though some albums were so dull, it was a struggle even finding 12 lines to write about them.

Planet Sound (and Blue Suede Views before it!) had a pretty interesting readership. For such a mainstream media outlet, the end of year polls were always very considered and not just full of reality stars and pop acts. Was that feedback a reflection of the content, or is the public more discerning than we're led to believe?

With the PS Top 50, that was always solely my choice and the other writers on the staff, and they really were done just on what 50 albums and 50 singles I liked best. As I’ve explained on PS before, there was no crossover of artists in the singles and albums lists because there are always more than 100 artists releasing great records every year.

On the readers’ polls, I think the public is more discerning, but I also think the people who really love music did get to hear about PS, even if it was the only Teletext pages they read. I tried to make PS so that it championed good music, whether it was commercial or not: write about great obscure bands, but not dismissing bands just because they sold in great quantities. I remember reading somewhere that PS was “a good halfway house between being more leftfield than Q and less pretentious than Pitchfork.” I’ll take that.

How much leeway did you have in terms of editorial control? The original team on the computer game section Digitiser were famously anarchic and it was amazing they got away with it for so long.

That ties in with the poll results, I think. In terms of what kind of music I wrote about, I had total freedom, which I’m very grateful for. Teletext’s editor John Sage (who was editor throughout my time at PS) isn’t a music fan himself, but respected me enough to basically get on with it. There would be the occasional “Let’s make it more mainstream” mutterings, but they were never taken seriously and they’d eventually die away – I have my populist taste anyway, so that I could get, say, a Kaiser Chiefs or Snow Patrol interview to keep the grown-ups happy.

The only frustrations where editorial control did come in were over things like the number of lines on screen being cut – I think we went down from 16 to 12 on album reviews over the course of the decade, because of badly-designed pages on digital TV compared to analogue – as well as the number of pages themselves, and deadline times for filing copy. But, overall, I can’t complain too much as I effectively had the freedom to write about what I wanted. Another editor could have made it more mainstream, another editor more alternative.

Of the demo tapes you received, what were the ones that made the heart beat faster? Any famously bad ones?

Hope Of The States, obviously. Anyone at all would have raved about a demo of 'Black Dollar Bills' landing on their desk. The Twilight Sad, Maximo Park and Editors are the others that made it big, along with Calvin Harris, though sadly I’ve lost that demo CD. I remember it had a great hand-drawn sleeve. Of course, there were others I loved that never went on to get signed, like The Coolabahs and Some Best Friend. The really bad ones were vastly outweighed by the ones that were just OK. In an average week, one demo would be great, two would be pretty good but lacking an inexplicable magic, one would be a sub-whatever was flavour of the month copy and one would be rotten. Art Brut were an unfunny joke to my ears, I gave them two stars and I stand by that.

Hope of the States

Heavy metal coverage. Lack of. Discuss.

I can’t deny that. As mentioned, the pages were skewed to my tastes, and I was so enthusiastic about a million other things that metal – the one genre of music I have very little time for – fell by the wayside. It didn’t help that our metal columnist for a couple of years was the least popular of our specialist writers. But, frankly, we weren’t paying any of them and it would have been callous to get rid of him, because he was so enthusiastic. Ironically, when I had a survey at management’s request about what improvements could be made to PS (as part of a Teletext-wide sections’ survey) the vast majority said “Better metal coverage”. That was something I’d wanted to do anyway, when we had space for it. So we hired another metal columnist, who was very good, started to get some respect...and was then axed as part of the 13th or 14th wave of cutbacks, proving what a waste of time the survey was in the first place.

People seem genuinely sad to see it go. That must be pretty gratifying?

Oh, absolutely, particularly in a way from people who have begun writing in saying “I’ve never written in but always read PS and thanks.” I am sad that there won’t be another magazine like it – the truth is, I need to pay the bills and don’t have time to start up a PS-type replacement blog – but I had 10 years doing it, and that’s a hell of a run. All I did was try to write a music magazine for people who cared about music, which is sadly less common than it should be. Even the people who’d write in saying “Your review of X was terrible”, 90% of the time at least it was a well-thought out argument. Though the only reader’s letter I’ve ever kept was after an Iron Maiden review that started “Dear Mr Earls, you are a foul cunt and I piss on your soul” and was signed by The Fuckmaster.

Setting up Wet Records sees you go poacher turned gamekeeper. What can you take from your years of journalism into running a label?

I think the only thing that journalistically applies to the label is the contacts – the press officer for Elbow, Editors and Madness, Lewis Jamieson, is doing the PR for our first single by The Incredible Flight Of Birdman, and I’ve been able to get Bicycle Thieves as the named headliners on their first London gig because it’s me promoting the night. Otherwise, I guess it’s the experience of listening to so many demos over the years that will hopefully help in making the WET singles good.

What attracted you to Incredible Flight ...?

They sent the demo of what is now the single, 'Where I Can’t See You', to me about a year ago. It was the last great demo I had when we were still doing the demo review section, and I thought it was amazing (and still do). It’s a great example that, having giving it a 9/10 review on air, I was slightly disgusted that no record label A&Rs signed them up in the meantime. WET is an idea that me and two non-industry friends, Gareth Williams and Simon Taylor (WET is after our surnames), have kicked around for a while and the time is right for all three of us. With Birdman still being absurdly unsigned, they seemed a gift for me to test my theory that it’s the industry at fault, rather than my ears.

Plans beyond the first single?

In true original Fierce Panda fashion, we want to release one single by each band, and then let them get snapped up to fame and gold discs by other labels after we’ve got them the initial exposure. It’s taken a few months to get everything sorted out with paperwork and so on but, now that everything seems to be finalised, it should be easier to use the same idea for subsequent singles. Though I’ll only be really confident of that once the TIFOB single is actually in the shops on January 11.