Panic Room: On Business
In the final part of Tim Hall’s interview, Panic Room‘s Jon Edwards and Anne-Marie Helder talk about wider issues regarding the “industry” and Panic Room’s place within it.
You’re now signed to a record label after several years as an independent band. How did this come about, and how is it changing the way Panic Room work?
Jon Edwards: The band had been getting wider exposure following the release of Satellite, with great reviews, articles and awards in national magazines. So we were approached by an A&R guy from Cherry Red’s ‘Esoteric’ label – they wanted to launch a new offshoot label (Esoteric Antenna) and were looking for exciting new bands to be the first signings.
We had a meeting with the folks who run the label and it quickly became apparent that they had a real passion and enthusiasm for the music. It’s hard to break into new audiences and get the music to a wider listenership when you’re doing it yourself, without the wider promotional network that a label can offer; so we felt that it was the right offer at the right time in Panic Room’s career.
Mark and Vicky at Esoteric have been really supportive and encouraging, and we’re looking forward to working with them to take the band to new levels and get the music out to as wide an audience as possible.
Anne-Marie Helder: I remember the day I had the call about Esoteric being interested in us… we were on tour, and playing in Newcastle that night! I shared the news with the guys – careful not to jump the gun and get too excited before we really know what was on the table. But it’s safe to say we played with a big dose of energy that night!
We’d considered signing to labels before, but always opted to stay independent. It’s not like it used to be maybe a couple of decades ago or more, when everyone was looking for the elusive ‘record deal’, the golden ticket…. The music industry is completely different, bands and artists are a lot more savvy, and to be signed is not the only way forward to success.
But for us, at the point we had reached in our band career, we were ready to open up a few more doors and try something different. Cherry Red Records are a fantastic and well-respected label, with a diverse range of genres and artists they cover; and as an imprint label of theirs, Esoteric Antenna is all about paving the way for a new breed of striking and original bands. We were very proud to sign to them, and be one of their very first releases.
In terms of the day-to-day running of the band, many things are still the same; we are still responsible for most of our own tour-booking, and all of our creative output etc. But we have the added benefit of the back-up from our folks at the label to help us with various elements of marketing and promotion, and spreading our wings.
I think if anything we’re working harder than ever before, rather than doing less!
There’s more press, more opportunities, and more emails back & forth to be dealt with on a daily basis, so it’s been pretty frantic this summer – we can’t afford to slouch!
It’s a very interactive relationship, and we’re still very much responsible for our own success. I think the minute you start thinking you can let someone else sort that for you, you’re in trouble. I do believe that hard work reaps its own rewards in the end.
Many of Panic Room’s fans frequently express frustration that the media, especially TV, tends to promote bands with a fraction of Panic Room’s talent at the expense of far better music. Do you ever share any of those frustrations?
Jon Edwards: Not really – it’s just the way it is – large parts of the music industry aren’t really about discovering individual talent and nurturing it anymore – it’s about maximising profit, and often the ‘artists’ involved have no integrity – they’re in it to become celebrities. Music just happens to be their route to achieve that, but if something else would make them famous quicker they’d do that instead.
Occasionally, something worthwhile becomes flavour of the month and gets taken up by the media, but that seems to be increasingly rare.
But as an artist, all you can do is to keep doing what you believe in, and hope that other people will connect with it. That’s what was so refreshing about the folk at Esoteric – they have an obvious passion for the music and really liked what we do – so gaining their vote of confidence in asking us to sign with them was a huge boost to the band.
Anne-Marie Helder: I think it’s important to remember that it’s a huge industry out there today, and actually when it comes to the pop end of the scale, there is now a lot of crossover between music, fashion, acting, TV presenting, reality shows, and any other avenue where people can be placed to make a quick buck and be an overnight sensation.
If you do become a pop starlet, you’ll naturally be expected to produce a perfume line next, and before you know it you’ll either be in Hollyoaks or a judge on the X Factor.
It’s a strange and fickle world out there… or should I say ‘in there’? It’s almost like a cauldron, spinning ever faster and sweeping people along with it. Will it ever spin out of control? I don’t know.
But much though every musician does want success and fame deep down (if they’re honest with themselves), they do tend to want it for the music they have created. Just some acknowledgement for their work, and to feel they’re reached people and left a creative mark on the world… left some true art behind for future generations to enjoy.
The world of fabricated music, constructed girl/boy bands, and talent shows couldn’t really be further from the music business that we know and work in. So if we’re really wanting to create art, to stay true to our driving passions, we need to remember that and not be swerved off-course.
There are still many people in the music industry who believe in true talent and forwarding new creativity… you just have to be open and not become embittered by the other stuff, because negativity will close more doors than anything else.
Most of the primetime ‘music’ phenomenon is a whole fake world of its own, and it’ll wear you down if you become envious of the adulation received there. And besides, most of it is the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome.
It is really heart-warming and beautifully supportive when you hear your own fans, people who truly love the music you’ve worked so hard to create, hoping and praying that you’ll one day reach the success and exposure that you deserve.
And maybe I’m a dreamer but I do feel in my bones that if you stay true to your path, work hard, and keep the faith, it’s only a matter of time.
Otherwise, I’ll see you down at the JobCentre! (Laughs)
Anne-Marie & Gavin are in a lot of different bands as well as Panic Room, with your involvement with Mostly Autumn and Halo Blind, and Gavin’s drumming for Fish. Is this just the reality of being full-time musicians in a world of part-time bands?
Jon Edwards: Yes, it’s a tough world out there especially in the creative arts – respect for people who create art seems to be really low at the moment, and lots of people seem to think that music, art, literature should somehow all be free. They’ll happily buy a round of beers for £20, but £10 for a CD – you must be kidding! So the simple truth is that it’s really hard to make a living as a musician without supplementing it with other work or being involved in other bands, and that’s no different with Panic Room.
Anne-Marie Helder: I’d like to clarify that I’m actually not ‘in’ a lot of different bands! I think this is a misconception. Panic Room is my main band, and has been since about 2006 when we started working on material together. The first album came out in 2008, and I have always fronted the band.
I may have been very busy with my solo touring work at the same time, but for quite a long time now Panic Room has been my main creative outlet, as it’s where the majority of my songwriting ideas will be directed. It is hugely rewarding, and I’m immensely proud of what we have achieved and where we have got to, through a lot of hard work and a devotion to creating better and better music.
I am also known for playing in Mostly Autumn, which I have done since about 2008 when I stood in as a dep on the keyboards. Eventually, having learned both these and the flute parts, and with a vacancy there, I joined the band! And I love playing live with them. They’re a whole separate family from my Welsh brothers, but I have fantastic times with them too.
It’s great for me as a musician to be able to juggle a few different instruments on stage as I do with them – keep my keyboard chops up, and toot my flute! But also I really like the different perspective of being stood at the side of the stage instead, and playing as an ensemble with the other musicians there, without having to front it all too. Being at the front is a very different role! I still work hard at it, I will with anything I do… but it’s different. And variety is the spice of life!
With Mostly Autumn, Bryan (Josh) is at the helm, and it’s his band. He is the main songwriter, along with Olivia (Sparnenn) now, and I don’t make creative input into the music, aside from playing live. So, as a self-employed musician, my role in Mostly Autumn is kind of like a long-standing session player. But that works fine!
I’m not currently touring with any other bands, and that’s been the case for a good while now. I did record on Chris Johnson’s Parade album, which to be fair was really his own solo project which I merely sang some guest vocals on. But when he brought the album out, it was obvious that there was a demand to hear it played live; and so of course I was happy to perform with Chris and the other guys who he pulled together for some shows.
Chris’ music is phenomenal, and I’ll always be inspired and invigorated by seeing him play or jamming with him!
It kind of went from being a session project to being a band, but still Panic Room was always my first priority, and everyone knew that. It was fantastic to record and work with Chris though, and I would still always be happy to work with him in future on anything, should the chance arise. We did do a few shows under the project’s new name ‘Halo Blind’, but in the last year or so everyone’s just been too busy to go there – including Chris himself!
As we mentioned earlier, Jon and I do have a lovely little album under our wing that we’re hoping to bring out in the next few months, an acoustic side-project that we call The Kindling, and we know that many Panic Room fans will love the music, but also people who are into more chillout/acoustic stuff will go for it too! These began as some tracks that we didn’t think were right for Panic Room, and then opened up a new doorway to give us a chance to express our more stripped-back acoustic sensibilities!
But this has been achieved – written, recorded, mastered – in the background while also pushing the Panics ever onwards and upwards, so as you can see, it’s possible to diversify and grow your creativity while still being focused on the one main mission!
Panic Room is the main outlet for my songwriting, and also what consumes most of my day-to-day life. But I do tour with Mostly Autumn regularly, and take part in some guest vocal sessions from time to time. However, as Jon rightly says, aside from all matters of creativity and musical fulfilment, there is also the simple fact that I am a professional musician, full-time, and so I need to stay working and busy!
Now Panic Room are “signed”, how will this affect commitments to other bands?
Anne-Marie Helder: As I say, the signing with Esoteric really doesn’t change much on a routine level for us within Panic Room, it just provides the marketing and distribution infrastructure that we need, and offers us new opportunities for Panic Room. So far we’ve found no extra clashes or conflict of interests with any of our other work, projects, or personal lives, so it’s all good.
As every band would say though, given the chance to jump on a huge tour or travel the world? You’ve got to go for it. Any great opportunities that come our way, we will take on wholeheartedly.
Jon Edwards: We already work around people’s other commitments, both musical and otherwise, and that’ll continue to happen. But every one of us is fully committed to making Panic Room a success, and we’ll make sure that we all give the band the time and energy that it needs to achieve that.
How do you deal with juggling touring, rehearsing and recording schedules?
Jon Edwards: Same as the rest of life – forward planning!
Anne-Marie Helder: And that’s why it’s good to have a woman in the band too… Multi-tasking! (Laughs)
Does working with other bands enhance your own creativity when it comes to Panic Room?
Jon Edwards: I think working with other musicians is a good thing – it gives you new perspectives on music and broadens your horizons, and I think anything that does that is good for you as a musician.
Anne-Marie Helder: Absolutely. Listening to other musicians, feeding off them in a live setting, and even just chatting and bouncing around ideas, is always great for a musician’s growth. There’s no point developing a shedload of talent and then never leaving the house. Well, unless you’re recording a solo album there I guess!
But I honestly feel that for most musicians in the world, connecting with other musicians – and indeed other people full-stop – is invaluable, as it’s all too easy to become too inward-looking, which musicians can be by nature. You need to balance that out by sharing your talents and ideas with other people. Collaboration makes you stronger. From a purely technical point of view too, the more you play, the better you play! And the more creative you get.
One for Anne-Marie: At one point you had a parallel career as a solo artist as well as fronting Panic Room, but that seems to have gone on the back-burner of late. Is that something you want to pick up again at some point, or do you now feel you can do everything you want to do as a songwriter within Panic Room?
Anne-Marie Helder: I’ve been very lucky to be able to explore both facets of musical performance, as a solo artist and as part of a band. Just as I never set out to become a solo artist per se – it was just a natural course that opened up to me in about 2002 when I became self-employed and wanted to play as much as possible – I also never intended to ‘stop’ doing solo gigs!
And indeed, in my head I still think of myself as the same person as the ‘Anne-Marie Helder’ who played all those big gigs on my own, from London Roundhouse to Birmingham Symphony Hall (supporting Ultravox), and toured all over Europe. I haven’t changed, and I still have a whole big bounty of solo material that I can call on at any time, and a lot of which I’ve never recorded!
The plan was always to get into the studio and do a full solo album (to follow up on The Contact EP, 2004)…. And my Panic Room band-mates have always been keen to get me in there and starting it! They’re fully supportive of any solo stuff I do, I’m very lucky to have them!
So the only reason for not getting that done by now is Time. Time, time, time. I just never have enough of it! Panic Room have been so busy over the last year or two, it’s really absorbed most of my time and energy. And I’m happy that it has! We’re doing great.
So I have no unsatiated creative urges right now, I feel very complete creatively, and know that anything I wanted to try within the band is always going to be welcomed with open arms. Sure there will sometimes be things that might work better as a solo project – or even as an acoustic collaboration, which is where The Kindling comes from! And that is a beautiful album indeed, which I can’t wait for people to hear.
But I’ll still hopefully record some purely solo stuff as soon as possible in the future, and will keep everyone posted! I’m really glad that the fans who knew me from my acoustic touring have come along on the rollercoaster ride with me for Panic Room too!
There are quite a few female-fronted bands on the scene at the moment at Panic Room’s level. Do you find you’re all competing for the same limited fan base, or do you think there’s a far bigger untapped market out there for Panic Room’s style of music?
Anne-Marie Helder: I don’t think of us as competing for the same fan base at all. In fact, I just don’t think of us as competing with each other. As Jon said, the whole ‘female-fronted’ expression does get over-used, and can be quite limiting really, when, let’s face it, no-one says ‘A whole new breed of male-fronted rock bands!’ when they’re discussing a few new acts. It all feels a bit like lazy journalism to me.
There’s no getting away from the fact that I’m a female; and so too are some other folks out there who might be lead singer/songwriters with their bands, and there are many great bands who are deservedly on the rise at the same time as us.
But that’s where the connection ends.
We don’t write or perform with anything in mind other than giving our own creative best – we’re not thinking about other bands who are said to be at our level, about what they might be recording, when they’re touring, who they’re doing lunch with, etc, etc. There just isn’t the time or energy left over to think about these things, everything is moving pretty fast every day, and, if you spend too much time looking sideways or over your shoulder, you take your eye off the top of the mountain, where you’re trying to reach.
I personally don’t think that there’s only limited space at the top of that mountain – I think there’s room for many flags, and encampments! And it’d be nice to have the company too (…I’m off on a metaphorical trip again!)
I guess I’d just like to get away from this whole notion of ‘competition’. Music is not about competition, not to me. Not to any of this band. When it comes to our professional peers – our fellow musicians out there, working hard to get ahead, and who, yes, might share some of our fan base, but then music is not a commodity and neither are fans! – With the greatest respect, we don’t really care what everyone else is up to; we’re just happily forging our own path ahead!
And we do know that we’re unique enough to not really worry about being compared to other bands… maybe it used to happen at the start, but I think most people now know that we just sound like Panic Room, and that is all.
We do have many fans now from a wide pool of musical tastes, as well as all age ranges; and yes, I know there is a huge market out there for our music. I wouldn’t say it’s untapped though – we’re trying our best to install those taps right now! (Laughs)
Something that’s really nice about fans with wide-reaching taste is that they’re often open-minded enough to just listen to us and like us for being Panic Room. No needing to try and crow-bar us into one genre. It’s like being seen for who you really are, by a friend or lover. I still say that we’re ‘alt-rock’ if anything… but I thought that Gavin Esler spoke a lot of sense recently when interviewed on Radio 2 by Simon Mayo, regarding his role as the host of the first-ever Progressive Music Awards. (Esler, best known for presenting ‘Newsnight’, hosted the Awards on Sept 5th at Kew Gardens, where Panic Room were nominated for the ‘Anthem of the Year’ award).
He said that for him, the meaning of ‘progressive’ music was, and should still be, anything that is creative, inventive, and helping to push forward boundaries. In the true sense of the word, I think all musicians, including myself want to be progressive! And there were many absolute legends at that Awards ceremony that had undoubtedly changed the course of music forever, and were truly ‘progressive’ heroes!
But in the current scene I think Panic Room can be misrepresented when described as ‘a prog band’, because the connotations of that do tend to be, for many people, that you’re a pastiche or rip-off of one the old-school bands, therefore you must be playing exceedingly long songs, with largely instrumental content, too many time signatures, a subject matter focusing on the obscure and the middle-earth, and far too many widdly neo-classical solos.
We don’t do any of that, and we don’t wear capes. (Laughs)
What I think is great is the press and fans helping to shift that preconception so that people realise that ‘progressive’ can mean more than this, and should. I hope that these new awards really do help people to embrace what’s truly new and progressive out there, and open lots of minds among the music-buying public. Who’s to say what really is and isn’t progressive, these days? If you’re being original and inventive, that should count.
I guess at the end of the day, all any artist really wants to do is reach people; and ideally as many people as possible! We’re going to continue with that mission, and really whatever tags people put on us along the way don’t matter. We are what we are, and we sound like… Panic Room.
While social networking can be a great tool for promoting a band’s music, I think we’re aware there can be a darker side, whether it’s backstage politics rearing its ugly head in front of fans, or the risk of too much blurring of public and private lives. You use social networking a fair bit; how do you deal with these issues?
Jon Edwards: I think it’s important, especially in these day of so much choice via the internet, that bands do connect with their fan base and we’re happy to do that as a band and as individuals to a greater or lesser degree. But at the same time, it’s also important to maintain a distance in terms of the private lives of the band members and of the band itself.
We’ve always tried to not talk about band politics in public as it’s really nobody’s business but those involved. Similarly, we have occasionally had questions and comments about personal relationships too – and again, these things are just not open for discussion.
So we generally deal with these kind of issues by operating a ‘No Comment’ policy – unless there’s a personal public attack on any of the band in which case… watch out!
Anne-Marie Helder: It’s vital to have a strong presence online to make your band be seen and heard – those are the times we live in, and although music is an artform, you need to have a business head about it as well, and to sell any product or idea you need to embrace the latest innovations of your generation.
I actually love being able to have direct contact with our fans, through Facebook and Twitter etc. It’s nice to learn a little more about people, from little things they say or do… not just to listen and answer their questions and friend requests, but also to have a bit of banter and a laugh with them! 90% of people are as good as gold, they’re warm and friendly and often funny, and social networking can bring out lots of good characteristics in them.
But like with anything in life, there will always be those who can’t control their tongue (or keyboard!) and who may be disrespectful to others around them, overly negative, invade people’s privacy, or worse. Luckily I do think these characters are in the minority.
But I think that as you would meeting a stranger in a pub, you need to be friendly but exercise caution online too. I simply don’t tolerate bullies, bitching or backstabbing, towards me or anyone I care about, so I will simply draw a line and ignore such a person. I have been known to respond to things online, when my hackles are raised! I’m very protective of my friends, family, and my band!
But I try not to get sucked in to such rubbish any more. I find it rarely makes anything better; it’s far more likely to be inflammatory. And why waste your time and energy? There are so many better things to be doing!
Mind you, sometimes a short, polite but firm ‘Private Message’ can be effective, if you want to stop things getting out of hand.
All good inventions generally bring with them some negatives too. Facebook has proved to be a fantastic way of sharing information with our fans and also getting to know them better. But we all have to be careful online, and also remember that face-to-face, everything can be very different to what happens in the cyber-world.
And finally, any parting thoughts?
Anne-Marie Helder: We hope to see you guys out there on our November tour. We promise you an awesome gig!
Thanks so much Tim! Panics over and out.
Photos: Tim Hall