I’ve been involved in the music industry in some way or another since my teenage years as a member of a punk band and working in a record shop—A1 Music, which has since closed down and made way for Sound Control. It was at Sound Control recently that I met Liam Walsh, the founder of Ask Me PR, who also has a long and illustrious career in the music industry; he’s a highly respected radio plugger, manager, indie record label owner and industry consultant. Amazingly, although we moved in similar musical circles, we hadn’t spoken to each other, so I was delighted when Liam agreed to have a few words.
Liam has worked with hundreds of artists, securing radio play for Oasis, The Killers, Bjork, Elbow, Goldfrapp, Moby, Doves, Pulp, Suede, Richard Hawley, The Wombats and The Ting Tings, to name but a few. I once applied to Liam’s company for some plugging help for a friend, but Liam was too busy, or didn’t like the band, and that made us slightly paranoid, so that was the first thing I wanted to talk to him about. Liam said, “I do find this really difficult actually because today, on this beautiful, hot sunny day, I was on my computer going through emails from bands that are constantly approaching me via email and asking me to work with them and you can’t work with everybody, you just can’t. Like in any of these TV talent shows, there’s got to be a way of filtering through, and sometimes watching these TV shows and thinking they were really good, but the judges decide not to put them through for whatever reason, that’s what it’s like. It could be at the time you’ve got too many clients or, you might not like the music—and I’ll only work with music that I think I can actually do something with.”
I was interested to know if he had to believe in the person he was working with, or if it’s about having enough money. “I feel like I’ve got integrity, and I’ve always worked with artists I truly believe I could help get to the next level or raise their profile. In the past though I have worked with labels, say A & M records took us on 20 years ago, they might have taken us on for 6 months for maternity leave, you’d end up having to work everything on the A & M label—some of it you may not have liked, but that was rare ‘cos most of the time I worked with labels and with artists that I really, really believed in.”
Off air Liam had mentioned Tony Wilson, and he told me he worked behind the bar at the Haçienda. “Before that I worked at the Boardwalk and when Dylan Matthews became the manager of the Haçienda he brought me over, but also, my office was next door to Inner City and to Factory for quite a few years and Tony and I got on really well. I worked there at the end of the ‘80s, beginning of the ‘90s, just when it really started to take off, when it became very exciting, and sometimes a little frightening.”
As Liam was involved with the music, and obviously a music lover, I asked him what led to him becoming a plugger, and he replied with a bit of his history. “I used to work in a place called Devilles, which was another big nightclub. I was very young, I was only collecting glasses there, and then one night there was a band on—they started putting bands on the dance floor—and this guy came over to me after the band and said, ‘what did you think?’ And I said, ‘oh they were brilliant’—and they were James, when they were signed to Factory Records. I thought they were fantastic. This guy said to me, `I want you to come and work for me.’ So, years later he opened the Boardwalk, and I went and worked for him there. At that stage I was at Art college, and Clint Boon came into the Boardwalk; he wanted some tee shirts. He said Liam, ‘can you do some?’ I was making tee shirts, and was also working at the Haçienda. He gave me the artwork, and I made the original ‘Cool as Fuck.’ tee shirts, and then I set up a business.” I would say that the tee shirts were more famous than the band—they made more money from the tee shirts.
Liam continued, “They were the first band that I worked with, the Inspiral Carpets. They took me on tour then and we had a fantastic time—I was their merch guy, and very famously, Noel Gallagher was the roadie. Then the Madchester scene came to an end, so I couldn’t do tee shirts for anybody else. My friends Alison and Sue, set up a company, called Red Alert, it had been going about six months, and they said, ‘Liam why don’t you come and work with us?’ And that’s how I became a plugger.” After Alison and Sue left Red Alert, Liam carried it on before he started helping bands, not just as a plugger, but by setting up his own record label and management company. “I invested my own money and learnt a lesson or two!”
As the ‘Cool As Fuck’ tee shirts proved to be such a good marketing tool for the Inspiral Carpets, we talked about image and style. One of the things I notice, which seems to be missing at the moment within music is, no matter what era, what sort of band, bands tend to have a uniform of some sort. Take rock bands, for example—the singers are stuck on the Wrangler jackets. In the past bands had to stand out from the crowd, or if you watched a band coming into a club, you could tell they were the band. Would Liam advise bands to dress a certain way?
“I work with a music college called BIMM—there’s one in Manchester—so I come across this a lot and they’re taught about how to look. One week we talked about this. How I described it to them was, whatever you’re wearing today don’t stand up on stage and wear that. Even if you had a similar look, but keep it just for your stage clothes, because I think there should be kind of a shift in the way that you think when you get on stage. So when you’re choosing those clothes, make them the better version of what you’ve got. Fans try to emulate the bands, they kind of feed off each other, so that’s what I would say: don’t be wearing what you’re wearing during the day when you get on stage basically.”
With such a long history working with bands, inevitably Liam has seen many changes. In the past records would be heard on the radio or at a gig, and often the bands would be signed to a label of some sort, but now we can listen to someone who’s just recorded something last night on YouTube and they can come across and pretend they are the biggest band in the world. As Liam said, “There’s too much competition. Everything I think now comes down to competition and that’s because of the internet; you’ve got so much to choose from. You can record a brilliant sounding record at home, whereas before, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago you had to have the money to pay to go to a studio and to pay a producer to do it.”
So how would Mr Liam Walsh go about helping a new band nowadays? Here’s a young band—they’ve had no radio play before—Liam is delighted with them, they’ve got a little sniff of a label, what’s the bottom rung, where does he want to get radio play?
“I always go for BBC Introducing, because I know the BBC Introducing team, I know the team in London; I know the team in Manchester, and I know them in other areas around the UK. And I do know that that is your intro, you need to get support from them. Then I would say to the band, local community stations, Fab Radio International would be one of them. What I say is you want as many people hearing you in your home town, your home city, as possible, so any radio station, any blog, any fanzine, that’s what you want to get. I remember the head of Radio 1 years ago saying to me, ‘Liam if they’re not big in their home town, don’t waste my time.’ So, get a name for yourself in your home town; get people talking about you in your home town, ‘cos what happens then, the A & R scouts—they don’t even visit these days—they look on those blogs, those local blogs, they look at the playlists of the local stations, it’s a big undertaking, or they get in contact with people like me and say, ‘who are you listening to, Liam?’
On the subject of listening to records, I asked Liam how long he listens to a track in the morning before getting his coffee. “Definitely less than a minute. What I do is I prefer to get music on Soundcloud, and with Soundcloud you can see the wave and you can see where the chorus is going to come in and we all want a chorus—we live by it, in our industry we live by it, and you can always edit a song but as long as you’ve got a great chorus, I’ll go to that and then let it play out.”
Before we wrapped up the show I had to ask Liam if there was anything that had got past him, a band or artist he wished he’d worked with. “Arctic Monkeys. I didn’t get to them in time. I heard the buzz, heard the tracks, but by the time I got to the management, it was too late. They went on to do brilliant things.” Even the greats in the industry can’t win them all.