This time 6 years ago I was preparing myself for the release my first album and the possibility of becoming, for want of a better word, famous. I had signed a record deal with Sony BMG to record up to 5 albums in the classical crossover genre. For my first album we decided to record classical versions of some of the pop songs I like, ones I felt I could put my own stamp on.
The record deal came about through a manager called Ian Brown. Ian is a colourful figure who left a career in pig farming to take up commercial music management. I bugged him with persistence, homemade demos and the hope that people might be interested in my music and my story. He agreed with me and started to weave his magic.
The record was principally to be marketed on my unusual dual career as singer and dentist. The ‘Singing Dentist’ was the strap line which helped get me on television and radio swell as into the newspapers.
Ian’s magic was fast acting, in no time I was in the recording studio putting down a full album with Paddy Dalton and Mark ‘Duck’ Blackwell. What an amazing month that was, every morning I would get on my Vespa and head off to Ealing, work on the arrangements and record. The recording studio vibe when a singing dentist puts down classical versions of pop songs is probably a bit different to Keith, Ronnie and Mick in their heyday, but I felt pretty rock and roll. Alongside this I was doing photo and video shoots, PR meetings, and newspaper, radio and television interviews – a huge change from my previous day-to-day.
Watching the machinery of a major record label whir into action was something to behold. What I found most strange was the dichotomy between being treated like a star but feeling completely controlled by the company. I was always picked up from home, my clothes were selected, ironed and fitted at any engagement, I even had someone whose sole job was to fan me during a video shoot so I didn’t sweat. However one always felt that this attention was a tap that could be turned off at any time; and indeed, before much water was lost, it was.
My album was due for release in Sept 2008 and the PR was stepped up accordingly. I sang on GMTV (see above), did a feature on BBC breakfast with my patient Christian Wolmer in the dental chair (he is now a Labour Candidate for Mayor of London). I also did the rounds of the radio stations . I particularly enjoyed a battle with rent-a-gob punk rocker John Robb on Radio 5 Live; he loathed my music, and I his. However when the release date came I was told it had been put back a month. Then my phone started to go very quiet and I began to feel I was being fobbed off. I was right; a month’s delay became two, then three and communication with the label and my management ebbed away to nothing.
Of course I would be lying if I said this was not hugely disappointing. All along I was aware that this was something very likely to happen in an industry which is fickle at the best of times, never mind in a recession. Public tastes are incredibly difficult to predict and the internet has undermined the entire financial model of the major labels. One feels that the labels throw a lot of s**t at the wall and see what sticks, sadly I didn’t.
I believe the whole business affected my family rather a lot. They were pretty worried from the get-go. Our family is not exactly the Kardashians when it comes to self-promotion. We are a fairly “British” family – we don’t like to blow our own trumpets too loud. In fact, to paraphrase a Blackadder joke, we don’t really tell anyone that we have a trumpet. However they knew how excited I was and they were incredibly supportive and certainly not against the idea.
Of course plenty of people think that the whole ”Singing Dentist” thing was a gimmick and of course it was. But was it JUST a gimmick? In this crowded world a gimmick is often what one needs to stand out. There are very few successful artists, particularly in the commercial world, who get where they are just by their sheer talent. That talent is generally backed up by their looks, their personality, their quirky backstory or simply by the sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time. It can also be said that in some cases these other factors far outweigh their actual talent.
My main goal throughout the whole record deal process and indeed throughout my whole career so far has been to prove that my singing talent is good enough to give lots of people great pleasure in its own right. NOT for people to say, “Oh he’s really good…for a dentist”.
Being labelled an opera singer only to produce an album of non-operatic repertoire brings with it many pitfalls. There is much debate within the classical music world about the legitimacy of so-called, “Classical Crossover” singers such as Katherine Jenkins and Paul Potts. The general consensus of working opera singers is that these singers do not have the technical ability or stamina to perform a full operatic role onstage over an orchestra without the aid of amplification. The venom with which people rant about these issues online is extraordinary. Of course Katherine Jenkins is no Elina Garanca when it comes to singing Carmen, but Jenkins has followed a different path and within that path she delivers what the public want. There is no doubt that the musical fare that Katherine Jenkins offers is not gonna appeal to the so-called “cognoscenti’ but it does appeal to a lot of people, and that is valid in itself. We are all entitled to our own judgement on entertainment, no-one’s taste is better than another’s. She has managed to forge a career in commercial music and that is no mean feat, let me tell you.
I think the main problem people have with these type of singers is the press referring to them as opera singers despite them never having sung in an opera, and I can see how that might annoy people. However anyone with any experience of the press and marketing must realize that the press mislabel people all the time in every area of life.
This whole debate with regard to high and low art is a topic I have long been interested in and is the reason I started writing about Mario Lanza. He too suffered from criticism for being too populist and not a real opera singer and now most people agree that he was the real deal.
Surely it is time for us all to forget labels. Forget what a singer SHOULD sound like, what songs they SHOULD sing and HOW they should sing them and just decide whether we like what they do. If we don’t – fair enough – but let’s not get all pompous about it. When it comes to my own singing I believe I can call myself an opera
singer as I have performed in a lot of operas. However I have also sung in West End musicals. I can only sing my best in my own style and let people decide whether they like what they hear. I loved recording the album and I hope you enjoy listening.
And as for my “Million Dollar Record Deal”. Well I certainly didn’t get a million dollars and it was a rather bruising experience but would I do it again?