‘You don’t have to be Bono or Bruce’: the business behind the current glut of music books
If it feels as though you can’t move for new music, then books about pop aren’t far behind. This Christmas alone has brought weighty tomes by Bono and Bob Dylan, Nick Cave’s conversations with the writer Sean O’Hagan, Bez’s autobiography, and former GQ editor Dylan Jones’s book about 1995. In recent years in the UK, two new imprints have launched – Nine Eight and White Rabbit – both running music-only lists within larger publishing groups. Omnibus is still soldiering on after 50 years, and the big non-specialist publishers have music lists, too. Music writing has its own literary festivals – Louder Than Words in Manchester, Aye Write! in Glasgow – and its own prizes.
There are probably a few reasons for this glut, suggests Pete Selby, founder of Nine Eight. “A lot of it is generational,” he says – hence new books by 90s acts such as Jarvis Cocker, Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite and the Charlatans’ Tim Burgess “whose thoughts are starting to turn to getting it all down on paper”. Plus, “the calibre of music publishing has never been stronger than over the past 10 years – the bar is really high, which acts as its own self-fulfilling virtuous circle”.
Lee Brackstone, who left Faber to launch White Rabbit in spring 2020, pinpoints Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys in 2014 as a key moment in this surge, proving that a book by relatively obscure punk musician could win acclaim and shift copies. “That implanted the idea that pretty much anyone can tell their story if they are a good writer. You don’t have to be Bono or Bruce.” These days, the cult hero memoir is a staple of the market – Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Miki Berenyi of Lush have both written acclaimed books, Berenyi’s unsparing story offering a very different perspective on the supposedly halcyon days of 90s indie.
Because getting books in general into stores is harder than ever, says David Stock, commercial director of Omnibus, artist-supported books – either memoirs, or official books, where the fanbase can be mobilised – offer new ways to reach audiences. For Omnibus this autumn, this has meant a book about the Jam, co-authored by drummer Rick Buckler, the autobiography of Right Said Fred, and memoirs by Cramps/Gun Club guitarist Kid Congo Powers; and Karl Bartos, once of Kraftwerk.
In some ways, these publishers have a model not dissimilar to specialist reissue labels that put out four-CD box sets documenting recondite scenes knowing pretty much exactly how many they will sell. So who is the market? Overwhelmingly it is people who want physical product, says Brackstone. While a crime novel might get 25-33% of its sales from digital editions, music books sell 90% hard copies. Does that mean, in effect, that the readership is at heart the music industry’s old friend “50 quid bloke”? “The people buying these books are, yes, middle-aged white men,” Stock says. “That’s not who we are trying to reach – it’s just a natural result of what’s being written about at this point in time.”
Related: Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys review – Viv Albertine on the thrill of being a Slit
It’s also indicative of who is behind the scenes: it can feel as though the vast majority of music publishing seems to be middle-aged white blokes, writing about the youthful adventures of other middle-aged white blokes, for the reading delectation of other middle-aged white blokes (and, yes, that perfectly describes me and my own book Denim and Leather, about British heavy metal). Music publishers follow trends, just as fiction publishers do, so formulas can get repetitive – in recent years, it has been the music writer’s memoir with a twist. It’s also who can afford to write them: there’s very little money in writing music books, unless you end up with a surprise hit or you’re so famous that you can get a multimillion pound advance. You need to be either churning out books – rarely a guarantee of quality – or be able to support yourself by other means.
“It’s definitely not as diverse as it should be,” says Brackstone. “That’s something I’m really conscious about. If I’m publishing 14 to 16 books a year, too many are by middle-aged white men. There’s no doubt about that. There have got to be more stories from writers who don’t fit that description.”
And some of the best books of recent years have been the opposite of old white dudes reliving the glory days of rock. Hannah Ewens’ Fangirls documented the world of fandom, one of the digital age’s great musical driving forces; Why Solange Matters, by Stephanie Phillips of the punk band Big Joanie, was part biography, part critical analysis, part memoir; Kelefa Sanneh chronicled the story of genre in Major Labels; Jessica Hopper anthologised her life’s work in the pointedly titled The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.
For now, though, music books are having their moment. But for how long? Selby reckons this current boom might last 20 years. Brackstone puts it at 10 to 15. Why will it end? Because the current audience will die: “They are all middle-aged,” says Brackstone. “Who will we pass the baton to?”
Five recent music books worth reading
Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music by Ann Powers
From one of America’s leading critics, an ambitious and brilliant examination of US pop that puts sex front and centre in the importance of music. Her central argument, in a nutshell: “We, as a nation, most truly and openly acknowledge sexuality’s power through music.”
Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm by Dan Charnas
The rare biography that explains the how and why of the music, too – which is important, because for the lay reader or listener, it unlocks why Dilla proved such a revolutionary figure, and shows why any biography had to venture past his death to tell his story.
Broken Greek by Pete Paphides
The model of the music-writer-memoir-with-a-twist, the twist being that the book covers only Paphides’ childhood – but it explains with enormous wit, warmth and pathos why pop music came to be his life-consuming passion. Also recommended to fans of books about chip shops.
Before We Was We: The Making of Madness by Madness and Tom Doyle
Perhaps the best band biography ever, in that it is less about the group as a musical endeavour, more a social history of a small patch of north London in the 1970s. You’ll come away learning a lot about how to steal records and bunk on to trains. Quite brilliant, from start to finish.
Me by Elton John
The model of a blockbuster autobiography (ghosted by Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis). Funny, revealing, ribald and full of the kind of anecdotes that leave jaws entirely dropped, Elton certainly earned his reputed £10m advance for his candour.