Music Moguls shows the true value of PR in pop culture

Let's not beat about the bush - the Music Moguls: Masters of Pop show on BBC Four has been a revelation these past three weeks as it has trawled lovingly through the undergrowth of pop culture.

Music Moguls showcased the explosive power of PR at it’s most potent, writes Julian Henry
Music Moguls showcased the explosive power of PR at it’s most potent, writes Julian Henry

And although the third and final instalment on music PRs was limited by relying on a handful of sources, it did a terrific job in showcasing the explosive power of PR at its most potent.

Of course, the idea of a reputable publicist talking openly about their work is like Houdini explaining how he escaped from a steel box that’s been encased in concrete and flung into the River Thames. We shouldn’t really be told if we still want to believe in the magic.

But this BBC Four show succeeded in coaxing one or two well-known figures out of their shells and it revealed the calculating, strategic and largely undervalued role that PR has played in building the image and reputation of some of the biggest pop names on the planet.

And it made great telly: once you get a PR man or woman talking, there’s an immediate sense that you’ve unearthed the secret cog upon which the whole story turns.

Other factors, such as the big-spending record label, the lunatic fans or the demented genius of the star talent itself, begin to fade into the shadows. And, to be honest, it was refreshing to hear this entrepreneurial and roguish perspective.

To appreciate the value of PR in pop culture you need to ignore the fact that Oasis once considered themselves the greatest band on the planet. Look instead at the narrative around their promotional schedule and how the dramas and crashes were constructed and managed.

If you’re a student of PR you will be fascinated by the detail of how the band’s liaisons with New Labour were engineered to play out in the papers and to note the hand of a canny publicist orchestrating the details, pushing buttons to create moments upon which the stuff of dreams stand or fall.

It was entertaining watching Alan Edwards and Barbara Charone emerging from the shadows and reluctantly discharging their secrets to the world while not owning up to any type of mischief.

Edwards is now PR royalty having somehow survived a long stint at the coalface of rock ’n’ roll and he spoke intelligently about the "significant role PR plays in British public life nowadays", adding that "not many people realise that its roots go back five decades to the start of the music business".

He’s right, of course: political, public and corporate discourse in 2016 remains infected with the cult of personality, as it was encountered by the British music stars of the 1960s onwards. Most of the elder statesmen of music PR from that period – Gary Farrow, Geoff Baker and others – today sit quietly on the sidelines as the keepers of secrets, biding their time until the moment comes for them to tell their story.

Other old-school publicists such as Max Clifford or Tony Brainsby are dead or in jail, and so this show did a remarkable job in tiptoeing through the debris left on the battlefield to explain how today’s idea of "soft power" was in part formulated by hungry tabloid editors and entrepreneurial publicists. 

It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that the mainstream media still run on assumptions born in an era when talent publicists were feted by media owners as the holders of the keys to the alluring world of celebrity.

My only criticism of this generally well-made and thoughtful show it that it opted out of exploring the detail of the media’s role in the construction of fame and the rules that govern the transactions in our trade. 

Julian Henry is global head of comms at XIX Entertainment

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