Conversations with Alumni: Amelia Fletcher CBE

Culture Profile

Image Description: a headshot of Amelia Fletcher against the backdrop of a drawing of Oxford’s skyline and the text ‘Amelia Fletcher: Alumni Series’

This week’s alumni has had a double career of sorts. In one world, she is a respected economist: former chief economist at the Office of Fair Trading and now Deputy Director at the Centre for Competition Policy and professor of Competition Policy at the University of East Anglia. On the other hand, she is a cult indie rock figure with a music career which began in the 1980s; in the interview below bands such as Radiohead and Nirvana are discussed as artists who have been influenced by her work.

After studying PPE at St Edmund Hall Fletcher went on to postgraduate study at Nuffield College. My conversation with her was incredibly interesting, and the topics discussed ranged from Riot Grrrl and confronting the sexist world of rock, early Radiohead gigs, the intersection between indie pop and competition policy, and Boris Johnson’s taste in pubs!

To start off, what are your memories of your time at Oxford? 

Well, I had been to school in Oxford, because I was brought up in Oxford. And if you’re brought up in Oxford, and go to school in Oxford, you tend not to like students very much. You find them kind of annoying. So I was a bit conflicted about the whole student thing from the start. Also, I was a strange student, in that I was always completely obsessed with music. I was much more interested in that than my studies. That said, I did study hard and did well. I liked my course and my tutors, and I learned a huge amount. I also met some amazing other students. The other singer in my first band, which was called Talulah Gosh, was a student called Elizabeth Price. She was at Ruskin Art College, and I was just across the road at St Edmund Hall. She’s now proved herself pretty amazing by winning the Turner Prize for art! Our guitarist is now the philosophy editor at Oxford University Press too. And I’m an economist. It’s not very rock and roll, what we all went on to do!

How would you explain the work you do now and your journey to where you are now from your past?

For all my life, I’ve managed to continue the two main things I do, the economics alongside the music. They haven’t interacted that much, which is probably a good thing. I’d say the biggest interaction is that when I finished at Oxford the first time, and got a First which meant that I could get a grant to do a postgraduate course, I chose that option mainly because I wanted to carry on doing music. I knew that getting a job would make it hard to carry on doing music! So I did a masters and then a doctorate mainly because I wanted to do music, not because I wanted to be an economist!

I accidentally became an economist, really. I never intended to become one, I really just wanted to carry on doing music

But having done four years of that, I ended up overqualified to do anything other than economics. So I accidentally became an economist, really. I never intended to become one, I really just wanted to carry on doing music. But I ended up learning so much that I became an economist. So that’s probably the biggest interaction between the two. Until recently, actually, since I’ve just written an article about competition in the music industry and why musicians don’t like streaming. That the first real time my two careers have properly overlapped.

Do you tend to encounter many people who are interested in both sides of your career, someone who is interested in both competition policy and indie music?

Strangely, in my kind of economics career, I have quite often come across people that are big indie music fans, just coincidentally. There must be some strange intersection in the Venn diagram that includes competition and consumer policy and indie pop! But I’ve found that when you start talking to people in the music world about the competition and consumer and regulatory work that I do, they initially glaze over but usually I can just about manage to get them interested!

At the moment, the particular thing I’m working on is trying to think about how to regulate the biggest tech firms – Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple etc – and actually, people are definitely interested in that. So I can just about get people from the music side of my life interested in my work. What’s more difficult is when people on the work side of my life, who don’t understand indie music at all, are nonetheless determined that they want to listen to my music. I’ve never really managed to make mainstream music – it’s quite specialist. So when people from my work world go: ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I’ll go and listen to her music’, I don’t get to hear what happens next, but I suspect they then go: ‘Oh my God’.

The C 86 genre label is somewhat legendary these days, and it’s often very broadly applied to jangly indie pop. But at the time, in the mid 80s, did it feel as if the indie community was a real musical community?

There was a real musical community – when I was going to gigs there were the same people always at those gigs. They were writing fanzines about their favourite bands. We were learning from the fanzines as much as we were from the radio or music press. And so it did feel exciting. 

It felt like music journalists saying  ‘you don’t fit to our kind of masculine rockist stereotypes, so we’re going to tarnish you with words that sound feminine in a negative way, like ‘fey’ or ‘twee’’

I would say, though, that jangly indie pop wasn’t really happening in the mid 80s. If you listen to C86 tape itself, a lot of it is quite spiky, quite punk, quite noisy. 

Our own band Talulah Gosh was also noisy. People now refer to the music made by bands in our scene as tweepop, but we were much harder and tougher than the term ‘twee’ suggests. I think the term was initially used a bit misogynisticly, as well. It felt like music journalists saying  ‘you don’t fit to our kind of masculine rockist stereotypes, so we’re going to tarnish you with words that sound feminine in a negative way, like ‘fey’ or ‘twee’’.

You’ve mentioned in past interviews your kinship with and influence on the riot grrrl movement (a genre of feminist punk rock popular in the 1990s). In the 80s and 90s did you find the music scene rather sexist? Did you feel it was liberating to be in bands where egalitarianism was more of an important motif than the more sexist band culture which was the norm at the time?

Yeah, I mean, we deliberately stood against the more male rockist approach to music. When Talulah Gosh started, there were actually quite a lot of female bands. I was particularly influenced by the Shop Assistants and the Marine Girls and things like that.

By the time of the late 80s, early 90s, when we started our second band Heavenly, indie music had become really male and loud, but without, in my view, any real passion or spirit or anything very interesting. We deliberately set ourselves up in contrast against that, even down to choosing the name Heavenly, because we thought it sounded like a name that no macho rock band would ever call themselves. We were rather stupid because we failed to realise there was a drug connotation to the word, so it in fact sounded more rock than we intended. I’ve also always really liked having more than one female in a band with me, just because it just feels different having a band more balanced in terms of gender.

I’m from Manchester and when people go misty eyed about Manchester music scene and, compared to say a city like Glasgow or Bristol the main musical figures were either all men or whoever Mark E Smith’s girlfriend was at the time

I agree. The whole Manchester scene was pretty male and pretty druggie. I do like The Fall and some Manchester bands, but I’m not very keen on the whole Madchester thing. I tend to like more direct, more impassioned music.

When your influence is written about by music journalists, bands such as Radiohead and Nirvana are amongst the names which are brought up. What is your perspective on that? 

It’s news to me! I saw Radiohead at a very early stage, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were more influenced by the scene that we were part of in Oxford. We and lots of other bands built up quite a healthy scene. There was a particular venue, the Jericho Tavern. I believe it’s quite nice now, but it used to be pretty scuzzy, but always good fun. Just about everything happened there. I think I was probably there two or three nights a week, if not more.

While I’d love to think we had a direct influence on Kurt Cobain, I suspect he was … more influenced by the whole scene of which we were just a part

Heavenly, did its first gig there. Radiohead, when they were called On A Friday, probably their first gig there as well. That’s where I saw them anyway. Ride, probably theirs too. It was quite a small group of people, but they all kind of knew each other. So while I didn’t directly know Radiohead myself, they knew people I knew. So if they were influenced at all, I think they were probably more influenced by that scene than by us in particular.

Nirvana is different, because Kurt Cobain was obsessed with K Records, which was an American label run by Calvin Johnson from a band called Beat Happening. We were on K Records, and we were very aligned with them musically, Beat Happening in particular. So I think again, while I’d love to think we had a direct influence on Kurt Cobain, I suspect he was again more influenced by the whole scene of which we were just a part. 

What are you listening to at the moment?

One band I’ve listened to a lot recently is called Penelope Isles. What I like about them is that they’re a brother and a sister, who sound  like they’ve been making music together for such a long time that they kind of don’t need to communicate with words any more, they just kind of communicate through music. If you go and see them live, it feels like the music is so inherently part of them that it’s great to watch. 

There are some good labels popping up in Oxford now. There’s one called Alcopop! that’s been putting out some interesting things. And there’s one called Divine Schism. I’m kind of excited for Oxford that its  got a couple of decent labels there. 

There’s one more band I will mention, which is called Panic Pocket. I really like them. They’re not Riot Grrrl, but they clearly come out of the Riot Grrrl genre – they’re two girls who can’t play particularly well, but they write fantastic songs about things that they’re cross about, and their lyrics are incredibly direct and real life. My favourite song by them is called The Boss. It’s just about being cross about your boss and how he treats you. That’s the kind of thing songs should be about!

Do you have anything in particular that you would like the readers of the Oxford student to read / watch / listen to or do?

Well, since I’ve got a record coming out, I guess I ought to advertise that. Our current band is The Catenary Wires, and we will shortly be putting out a new single called Mirrorball and then an album. 

The other thing I might mention is a film I just saw last night. King Rocker is about this band called The Nightingales, who are even older than us. Stewart Lee, a comedian who was also at St Edmund Hall, has made this film about the band, mainly because he just loves them so much. The film is funny and very human and a great tribute to staying true to yourself, musically over time, and just doing your thing. 

It makes you wonder what the people you’re at university with end up doing!

I was at Oxford at the same time as David Cameron and Boris Johnson. I didn’t meet them though. I don’t think they spent as much time as I did at The Jericho Tavern!

Image credit: Background by Tian Chen, photo supplied by Amelia Fletcher

 

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