The Art of the Artist Bio

Over the years I’ve written plenty of official record company bios for a variety of well-known artists (sorry, the identifies of them are a secret) and I can honestly say that each one was very…well, honest. No made-up bullshit or padding of careers with meaningless factoids. At the same time, though, I’ve read thousands of bios written by others that were steaming piles of crap filled with…well, dishonesty. This article by Larry Butler translates some of some of the phrases you might have encountered.

Is there no greater work of fiction in the English language than the artist bio?You know, the three-page laudatory pronouncement of some new musical genius suddenly discovered and spotlighted. Or how about the one that signals the mid-career change of musical direction? Or the end-of-career, where-have-they-been, and what-now variety?

The first is largely platitudes of the “most astounding debut of this or any previous musical season” variety, ultimately based on nothing but wishful hoping. The follow up bio usually has more meat to it, especially if the artist had made some kind of mark in the musical world in the interim; although it can become fairly evident by the third paragraph that the creative juices have dried up and they’re going to try something else now, in hopes of maintaining the already waning attention of a fickle audience.

But it is the final level of hubris that is the saddest of the three and generally the easiest to see through. The early promises and successes have been worn out and the second act didn’t prove nearly as fruitful. Worse, all of the previous character flaws that had gone overlooked or unnoticed now glare through. Then it becomes the job of the harried bio writer to take the facts of the matter as they lie and put that famous spin on them in hopes that this last gasp may catch the wave.

If you’re not sure what I’m getting at, read on. Even if you are sure what I’m getting at, what have you got to lose but maybe another few minutes? Like you have something WAY more important to do? Oh, come on.

During my 20-year stint at Warner Bros. Records, I provided the extra set of eyes to many of the artist bio’s before they were unleashed on an unsuspecting industry and public. Usually I would get a chortle from reading them because I would already be privy to the real story and would be impressed with the ways in which the writers in the Publicity Department had reconstructed those facts into flowery prose.

More often than not the basic facts would be incredibly boring, unimpressive or, worse, non-existent. The alchemist bio writers would then have to somehow produce something out of nothing. Or they would have to take the backstory of some jerk and make him seem like a real good guy. Or they would be instructed to take an artist from a privileged background and paint a hardscrabble life just for the cred.

To serve my point, witness the excerpts from bio’s of a fictional one-hit wonder at the three stages of his career. In the interests of avoiding any libel suits, I have taken various facts from a number of real artists’ careers and bio’s and thrown them together into a pastiche presentation, accompanied by the kinds ofliterary high roads taken by the unsung and faceless heroes of the publicity world – the bio writers.

Keep going.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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