Adrian Armstrong narrowly missed out on pop stardom. Now he is encouraging other aspiring young musicians by passing on his know-how through the New Deal for Musicians - a support scheme for the long-term unemployed. Harvey McGavin reports
IT ALL started so well. A young lad, barely 21, with a head full of tunes forms a band, gets a manager, a record deal and suddenly he's halfway to being a pop star.
Adrian Armstrong was that man. With two friends from university, he was in a band called Tanh Chi, which signed to Arista records in the mid-1980s.
They had a couple of minor hits in this country ("we touched the top 75") and more in Europe. Then, before you could even say "musical differences", it was all over. The group members fell out, the label dropped them, and they split up in 1988.
Adrian went back to college, becoming one of the first people in the country to gain an MA in digital music technology from Keele University. Now he is a senior curriculum manager at City College Manchester, but he's never forgotten that brief spell in the spotlight when, as he says, "it all went a bit Spinal Tap".
"It all happened too quickly really and we weren't prepared for the music business at all - it was so difficult to find people who could give you an honest answer to a question, or give you some properly-thought-out advice."
So when the New Deal for Musicians was launched last year, Adrian saw a chance to help unemployed hopefuls avoid the pitfalls of the pop business.
Together with colleague Phil Ellis - who, in a colourful musical career has worked with everyone from Simply Red to symphony orchestras and inmates of Strangeways prison - they won the contract to write the workbooks for the New Deal scheme, which cover everything from contracts and copyright to songwriting and recording, offering a guide to the murky machinations of the music business.
"It's the first time there has been a whole series of books about how to get on in the music business," says Adrian. "These books would have been a godsend to me when I was starting out."
The guides are aimed at bands like Gecho, a three-piece who have been together for a few years but are still finding their feet on the music scene. They have produced a couple of CDs of their eclectic, jazz-influenced dance music and have their own website but were feeling isolated in their home town of Colne, north Lancashire. Joining the New Deal gave them the chance to concentrate on their music full-time.
New Deal for Musicians is open to anyone aged 18 to 24 who has been unemployed for six months or more, who is interested in a career in any kind of music. They continue to receive benefit while pursuing self-employment or education and training options - or a combination of the two.
As part of the scheme, musicians are assigned a music industry consultant to guide them.
When Gecho want help, they call Ron Atkinson, the former manager of techno pioneers 808 State. He is a man with contacts to kill for and a nice line in advice (see below).
He is modest about his involvement: "I try to get them gigs, get Aamp;R men to see them and help with any probles along the way." But to Gecho his help is the kind of thing money can't buy.
Chris Manley, Gecho's guitarist, says: "Ron understood what we were trying to do. He has managed bands that are really famous.
"If a demo is sent in by someone like him who is known in the industry, already they take it more seriously. Otherwise, it's another demo in the record industry bin. It means we stand a better chance."
Another New Dealer, Pete Newton, has been writing songs for eight years and has high hopes for his latest collaboration - with Adi McCarroll, brother of the original Oasis drummer, Tony. He is hoping that their demo CD of tuneful, guitar-driven songs could be the breakthrough he has been hoping for.
"I just want to go into music - it's like a disease. All last year I was in a band hammering the Manchester circuit. But just to be a bit successful would be great."
Pop music needs dreamers and Adrian doesn't want to dim their idealism. But given his experiences, he is pragmatic enough to know that not everybody will make it. Even those who do could get caught in what he dubs "the revolving door" that sweeps you in and then spits you out.
"The statistics of making a long-term career in the music industry are not that great. And when you get there it is nothing like what you think it is going to be like. There is a 95 per cent failure rate. If we can bring it down to about 70 per cent we'll have done a good job. "
"The New Deal is a great pilot scheme and there are elements to it that are supportive and useful. It's great to see the government recognising that music is a career and picking up on the fact that it is one of our biggest exports.
"But if it wants us to produce a lot of pop stars and top DJs in 12 months it ain't gonna happen. Some of these people are long- term unemployed and you can't solve their problems in 12 months - it's going to take years."
"My musical career was very enjoyable in many ways, but it was destructive as well. It felt as if I was battering my head against a brick wall some of the time.
"But even though a lot of these people aren't going to make it in a traditional sense, they will look back on it as a constructive period in their life."
* DOS AND DON'TS FOR WANNABE POPSTARS...
Do be prolific at songwriting, play every gig you can find and record every tune you can write.
Do love your instrument. If your voice is your instrument, love it even more.
Don't sample other people's recordings when you can play - you can't afford to give your royalties away.
Do read the small print on everything. Do actually READ your contract! But don't use a lawyer till you need to - the bill can be as big as your advance.
Do trust your manager - or get a new one
Do sign a deal for the label and the people who run it - NOT for the money.
Do always leave the door open - the people you trust on the way up could be useful on the way down.
Do have a presence - create a permanent image that becomes your own.
Do have the courage to stick with your ideas and beliefs.
Don't set fire to the studio! (There is life after rock and roll).