The Hot Seat: Martin Atkins, PiL

Published in The Music Network


Martin Atkins is many things. He’s a muso, a lecturer, a label head, a music publisher, author, and a merchandiser. Across all these skills, he’s a punk at heart. The British-born, US-based creative has been a member of Public Image Ltd (PiL), and has worked with the likes of industrial iconoclasts Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. He’s the author of Tour:Smart and Welcome to the Music Business, You’re Fucked. A third tome, Band:Smart, should be on the shelves in time for Christmas. Atkins will share his colourful insights into the music business when he delivers a keynote speech at Face the Music in Melbourne later this month.

You’ve an hour-long touring presentation at FTM? How do you see that panning out?

I like to do a rapid-fire presentation of, hopefully, some thought-provoking ideas, a bit of nonsense, entertainment and stuff that can drastically affect a band or a brand. It’s become my mission to ring the reality now as loudly as I can without freaking people out and deafening them. The first part of people being in charge of their own success is for them to know how completely and totally fucked they are, and how little anyone else cares. If just a few people can grasp that and stop looking for the easy solution, then they’ll be light years ahead of the game. Most bands won’t dream of playing a tiny venue. Play in a 20-seat backroom of a place, play in a phonebooth. Then you can look the manager of the next club you want to play in the eye and tell him you filled it. Create your own success. You build up 100 tiny ideas like that and the tide starts to turn in your favour, as long as you’re prepared to work really hard, as long as your live show doesn’t really suck. As long as you’re prepared to sit around and say hello to every single person in the audience for two hours after the concert has finished.

I’ve just downloaded a free copy of Welcome. Did you have to twist arms to enable that to happen?

No. It’s just punk rock, isn’t it? If that was my only book, I couldn’t do that. But because it’s my second and my third is nearly done and I’m on 100 albums and I make t-shirts, I teach, DJ, and I play drums, I can do that. Part of my message is to embrace the gift-economy. It’s not a gift, really. It’s a slowly exploding guilt bomb. I’d much rather start the relationship. And see where it goes. Too many bands are reluctant to give-away anything. Why not give away their best album? Because then if people like them, they’ll forgive and still enjoy a badly recorded album. Bands just get so pulled into this whole perfectionist vibe. We really love bands when the PA blows up, or the drumkit falls apart, or someone breaks a finger and they soldier on regardless, even though they’re decimating the guitar parts. Bands don’t give us a chance to see the real stuff.

Has the music business always, in your words, “fucked” the musos?

The music business is the music business. My old bandmate Johnny Rotten has been complaining that the music labels screwed his career. It was just so pathetic. The major labels were just being the major labels. The people who did the most damage to artists have been artists. Artists much more so than many other walks of life are really fantastic at complaining. There’s nothing holding you back except yourself. Some artists just retreat into being faster on guitar, or being a better drummer. It’s just not important. You need to be OK on your instrument. But you need to be OK at 25 other things as well. That’s true of most jobs.

If you had to start your label again, how would you go operating it?

I still have Invisible Records. We’ve released close to 400 albums from 1988 ‘til now. I’m going to use that basis of 10,000 songs, my own studio, all these multi-track recordings, and get a bunch of my students to experiment, and learn not just how to run a label but how these platforms work. What if you just let anyone in the world just download some of these songs for $5 including the sync rights? Maybe Coca Cola might use one in Italy. Or maybe people might just want it to make boutique movies. It’s a great way for students to learn where things are going.

What did you think when Johnny Rotten shot those butter commercials?

It’s really interesting culturally to see someone who was despised by the establishment in England become the Robin Hood/Merry Jester. A lot of people were upset that he did that. He said he needed the money to make a new PiL album. Fair enough. It was pretty strange really. To me, the entertainment is seeing and hearing John rationalise it all.


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