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.

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