Friday, 28 February 2014

And the Winners Are . . .

One final blog (I hope) on that good old Brit Awards effect. As expected, there is a direct parallel between the acts who received the most nominations and those who have done best in this week’s charts. Bastille had four nominations and performed on the show. As a consequence, their album Bad Blood has risen from 10 to number one in the charts, plus they have four singles in the top 100 (two of them new entries). Disclosure also received four nominations and performed on the show. Their album Settle has risen from 32 to number three in the charts and they also have four singles in the top 100 (three of them new entries). Arctic Monkeys opened the show; they also won the night’s two major prizes. Their album AM has risen from number 11 to number two in the charts and they have three singles in the top 100 (two of them new entries).
            And what about the great hope for the future, Sam Smith, who was the winner of the critics’ choice award? He’s received the biggest boost of all. This week’s number one single is his record, ‘Money on My Mind’, a new entry. His song ‘Lay Me Down’ is another new entry at number 49. And two of his ‘featuring’ guest appearances – ‘La La La’ by Naughty Boy and ‘Latch’ by Disclosure – are also in the top 100. As miscounting fan Ilyas Ver Sario Muhammed puts it in the comments section of the Top 100: ‘OMFG kidding? There's 3 sam smith songs in one weekly charts? KEEP IT UP SAM!!!’.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Who Makes the Blockbusters?

Thinking back to last week’s blog entry about the Brit Awards, it raises a question: what drives the tendency towards monopoly amongst the nominees? According to the Brit Awards’ website, their Voting Academy is made up of ‘over 1,000 music enthusiasts representing every sector of the music industry’. This academy was presented with a list of 1,000 singles to choose from and over 500 LPs. They also had hundreds of different acts from which to select their favourite groups and solo artists. However, as I pointed out last week, rather than producing a diverse list of nominees, the academy ended up selecting the same names again and again (a full list of the nominated British acts is given below).
From a leftist perspective it is tempting to think that this is purely a corporate ploy. The industry is conspiring to vote for the acts behind which it has placed the most money. And I’m sure that this is at least partially true: as Anita Elberse has pointed out, the cultural industries are increasingly employing a blockbuster strategy. But this is only half the story when it comes to hits. The strategy wouldn’t work if the public didn’t like blockbusters too.
We increasingly demand more of less. There are millions of cultural items for sale on the internet but the market coalesces around a reduced range of titles. One reason why we focus on the few is because there is too much out there. Rather than get lost and bewildered by the long tail of the internet, we indulge in a small range of titles and artists that are promoted by major corporations. Some successful artists have begun to worry about our narrowing obsessions. Robin Thicke has complained that the public’s obsession with ‘Blurred Lines’ led to his follow-up releases being ignored. More recently, Lorde has requested that radio stations stop playing ‘Royals’ so often, as she wants ‘to give people a little bit of breathing room before I unleash something different’.
The public aren’t just passive dupes. Although these blockbusters are aimed at us, we get creative with them too. They become part of our collective cultures. The world’s water cooler moments have always been dependent on hits. On top of this the internet produces its own feedback loop. Every hit song becomes part of an ongoing dialogue: records and videos are covered online in a variety of styles and from a variety of perspectives; we can read endless lists of user comments if we so desire.
But what does all this have to do with the Brit Awards shortlists? Well, as Keith Negus has pointed out, when it comes to the music industry, the differences between work and leisure are far from clear. The members of the Brit Awards Voting Academy are presumably listening to hundreds of records and attending dozens of gigs, but can they delineate which aspects of this are done for their own entertainment and which are part of their work? Are they employed because of their personal tastes or because of their professional judgement? What I’m getting at here is that the Voting Academy may well be part of the corporate machinery, but they are members of the public too. As such, they are likely to get caught up in blockbuster culture from both sides. Disclosure, for example, received four nominations, and this may be because they are signed to Interscope, which is part of Universal, which is the biggest record label in the world. On the other hand, it may be because there is a public buzz about the band who, according to Hype Machine, were the most blogged about artists of 2013. The tendency to vote for the same acts again and again might be driven as much by popular cultural practices as it is by industrial pressure. Or am I just providing the Voting Academy with an excuse?
Number of Nominations for British Artists at the 2014 Brit Awards
Disclosure: four; Bastille: four; One Direction: three (and three more in the past); Ellie Goulding: three (and three more in the past); Rudimental: three (and one more in the past); John Newman: three; Arctic Monkeys: two (and seven more in the past); David Bowie: two (and seven more in the past); Calvin Harris: two (and two more in the past); Laura Mulva: two (and one more in the past); Tom O’Dell: two (and one more in the past); Naughty Boy: two; Jessie J: one (and five more in the past); Olly Murs: one (and four more in the past); Laura Marling: one (and two more in the past); James Blake: one (and two more in the past); Jake Bugg: one (and one more in the past). London Grammar, Birdy and Passenger were the only acts in this year’s list to have received a single shortlist place.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Brit Awards 2014: There's Got to be a Way to Blockbuster!

In theory, the Brit Awards are about the recent past. To qualify for an award, an album or single must have been released in the previous 12 months and an artist must have released a recording in that period. In practice, they are all about the future. One aim of the televised ceremony is to maximize album and single sales. The awards presentations are leavened with live performances, and it is the latter that are more effective at promoting releases (following Adele’s performance at the 2011 ceremony, sales of ‘Someone Like You’ increased by 785%). Another aim is to promote new artists. The British Phonographic Industry, which operates the awards, has orientated them in this direction. In 2008 they introduced a ‘critics’ choice’ award, whereby a panel of industry insiders designate a forthcoming star. More recently, they have dropped their ‘outstanding contribution’ award, which used to be given to industry veterans, and replaced it with a ‘global success’ award, which seems to be the exclusive preserve of One Direction.
In theory, the Brit Awards are fair and open. The official website claims ‘The Brit Awards operates a completely transparent procedure’. It details the qualifying criteria: all albums and the 1,000 best-selling singles released by British artists in the preceding sales period are eligible. Industry figures then put forward their personal top fives after being sent a list of these titles. In practice, the awards are closed and unclear. There is no information about who chooses the eventual winners or how they are chosen. There is also no explanation of why, despite the multitude of qualifying artists and records, such a small number make it through to the final shortlist. This year, nine separate awards were available for British artists, with winners chosen from 46 shortlist places. However, only 24 acts shared the nominations between them.
In theory, the aim of the Brit Awards is to celebrate British music. In practice, they are reliant on foreign talent. There are three ‘international’ awards, and in order to maximize viewing figures (and sell the latest tracks and concerts by the artists concerned) there are live performances by major global stars. This presents an awkward balancing act for the British Phonographic Industry. The nascent British acts that it is promoting – last night Disclosure, Bastille and Rudimental were among the artists to perform live – have to measure up against seasoned American performers – BeyoncĂ©, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars all appeared, and the show was stolen by Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers.
The Brit Awards are evidence of a culture of blockbusters. In her recent book of the same name, Anita Elberse argues, ‘The highest-performing entertainment businesses take their chances on a small group of titles and turn those choices into successes by investing heavily in their development’. This is the opposite of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory; rather than the ‘future of business’ coming from ‘selling less of more’, the focus of media corporations is concentrated on a few stars and a few key releases. Time is concentrated, too. Aside from talent shows, there are now few opportunities to promote music on British television. The record companies have to focus much of their promotional activity on this single annual event.
As a result, the Brit Awards have to ensure that the critic’s choice is right. These are the future blockbuster acts who they hope will sit alongside the American stars. So far, they haven’t done badly. The first winner was Adele, who was the best selling albums artist in the world in 2011. The second was Florence and the Machine, whose two albums topped the UK charts. The third was Ellie Goulding, who has sold over 10 million singles worldwide. The fourth was Jessie J, whose first single ‘Price Tag’ debuted at number on in the UK singles chart. The fifth was Emeli SandĂ©, who had the UK’s biggest selling album of 2012. The sixth was Tom O’Dell, who perhaps has the lowest profile of the winners so far, but has still achieved a number one UK album.
2014’s critics’ choice is Sam Smith. He has already proved his worth via the music industry’s version of an apprentice scheme. He has been ‘featured’ on a number of singles by other acts. The first was ‘Latch’ by Disclosure, which reached the UK top 20 in late 2012. His next guest spot was on ‘La La La’ by Naughty Boy, which reached number one in Britain, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Italy and the Lebanon. Confirming the concentrated nature of the Brit Awards and the British music industry, Disclosure were nominated for four awards this year and ‘La La La’ was shortlisted for best single and best video.
Back in 1973, the British glam rock group Sweet released a single which asked ‘does anyone know the way, there’s got to be a way, to blockbuster?’ They found the answer. After the group appeared on Top of the Pops wearing make-up and German army uniforms their record went to number one. In 2014 there is a new response: get your act nominated for as many Brit Awards as possible. We’ll need to look at next week’s charts to find out who the real winners were.
N.B. An edited version of this article is available, with academic rigour and journalistic flair, at The Conversation.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

It's Raining Men (Again)

For a moment I thought that this blog was starting to have real effect. Three weeks ago I wrote that ‘It’s Raining Men’ by the Weather Girls is one of the most important artworks of the 1980s (see 'Party Streamers'). Now the song has suddenly re-appeared at number 31 in the UK charts.
            It turns out, though, that this is the result of the latest Facebook hit single campaign. In January, the UKIP councillor David Silvester claimed that the floods that have beset Britain since Christmas are divine retribution for parliament having passed the gay marriage bill. Playing ‘It’s Raining Men’ as often as possible is a fitting response to his idiocy. It’s also evidence of the song’s continuing power. God bless Mother Nature!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Do You Remember the Days of the Old Schoolyard?

Musical taste at school is dynamic. The popularity of any band or any genre can go from being cool to being embarrassing; woe betide any student who doesn’t keep up with what is in and what is out. There are shifts in taste in each school year. There also differences in the ways that each school year uses its music. But are these differences caused by psychology, aesthetics or political economy? And do they hold true at different periods in time?
In 1972 Simon Frith surveyed a school in West Yorkshire. He found that, as pupils grew older, they moved away from the mainstream towards the underground, and away from group consensus towards greater individuality of taste. Fourth formers had ‘maximum involvement in youth groups’; fifth formers ‘emphasised beat and sound in their tastes rather than meaning’; sixth formers scorned ‘“commercial” tastes’.
In general, this remained true at my own school in the late 1970s/early 1980s. We were the punk generation. At first, there was mass consensus that all punk was a good thing. Then, in later school years, there was greater discernment: some bands were in (the Fall) other bands were out (the Boomtown Rats). There was a shift from chart punk released by major record companies (the Clash, the Stranglers), to more obscure punk released by independent labels (Discharge, Crass). By the time I left school I was ordering albums from America so that I could get hold of records that no other students owned.
Two of my nieces are currently at high school and their taste is just as nuanced and distinct. A couple of years ago they were into One Direction. They were displaying their ‘maximum involvement’ by following Britain’s biggest boy band. This year One Direction are out. My nieces are now fans of K-pop. Although their musical taste might seem far removed from the punk that dominated my school, their reasoning is not so different. My nieces are not into Psy; what they like is the more obscure K-pop. They told me they like it because it is not written about in the mainstream press. They are displaying excellent scorn for commercial taste.
And yet I’m not sure that it’s quite so easy to wrap up the tastes of school years and put them into boxes. There are factors that make these groupings unstable. One is the role of other family members. When I was at school there were fourth formers who already displayed refined taste. The common factor amongst them was that they had older brothers or sisters. These siblings gave them advanced warning of the rules of their own school years. While I’m sure this dynamic remains in place, there is now further family intrusion. The taste of parents used to be something to rebel against, but this is no longer always the case. Some ‘cooler’ parents insist on taking up the role of older siblings; they advise their children about what is and what is not to like. From what I have seen, it is as children get older that they are coming into closer alignment with their parents’ tastes. Fourth formers are still winding up their mums and dads by insisting that chart pop is amazing; but today’s sixth formers are asking their parents if they can borrow their old vinyl LPs.
Music also plays apart. There are always acts and genres that are aimed specifically at school kids, but this music varies in both quantity and quality. Some of this comes down to demographics: when there are lots school kids around the music industry aims a lot of music at them. Some of it comes down to luck. Bliss was it to be young in the late 1970s when punk held sway. This music was aimed at children, but it was also complex. It felt important at the time and still feels important today; it informed the philosophy by which I live. While I’m an arch populist and an out-and-out lover of hits, I struggle to find similar significance in One Direction.
The media infrastructure also changes from generation to generation. When I was at school the move away from the mainstream was largely a game of one-upmanship. It also wasn’t that hard to escape mass media. Although there was a greater presence of popular music on terrestrial television in those days (Top of the Pops was being broadcast to 15 million viewers each week), the music was hardly touched upon in the daily papers (it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that both the tabloids and the broadsheets gave it greater coverage). As such, it wasn’t difficult to access ‘obscure’ music (listening to John Peel’s radio show or buying Sounds would do the trick).
Things are different today. My nieces aren’t just turning away from chart pop out of a desire to refuse mainstream taste; they are also turning away from it because its depressing to be confronted with the antics of today’s pop stars in the mass media. It’s simply not safe to be a fan of Rihanna, Rita Ora, Justin Bieber or the other performers who receive media saturation. Who knows what they’ll do next? Their disrobing is embarrassing and their antics are stupid. And so instead my nieces are putting their faith in K-pop acts about whom we know nothing and who chose to say nothing in the press. Although there is wisdom in this, I’m not sure that it’s a design for life.