Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Building Me a Fence

Popular music has been suffering from some growing pains. Where artists once cast themselves as being against big business and the man, they now have to present themselves as budding entrepreneurs. Take Jack Garratt, for example. magazine has described him as being ‘part of a new breed of pop star, led by Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, who as well as making music see themselves as CEOs, team leaders, motivational speakers and HR departments of their own brand’. This is quite a change. When I was younger, bands would pose as rebellious outsiders. Stiff Little Fingers, for example, announced themselves by saying ‘we’re going to blow up in their face’. Here, in contrast, is how Garratt talks about his career: ‘it’s been a very natural and organic growth from being an unsigned, undeveloped artist then development through my management and then upstreaming onto a record label’.
Garratt’s language is hugely unappealing. And yet it could be argued that he is taking a stronger stand against the industry than punk bands ever did. He is building is own career and he is in control. The problem, as ever, is that such talk flies in the face of popular music’s romantic ideology. Romanticism, as Jon Stratton argued back in 1983, ‘expresses itself as contrary to all that capitalism stands for’. Artists aren’t supposed to be interested in business; they are supposed to recoil in horror from business.
The irony, as Stratton has pointed out, is that romanticism supports the capitalist practices of the record industry. This is because the individualism of the romantic artist ‘operates to counteract the “distancing” associated with the music’s commodification and substitute for it an essential unity between artist and consumer which elides the function – and existence – of the record companies and thus of the capitalist process which has called the music into being’. In other words, record companies differentiate their products by promoting the genius, sensitivity and anti-capitalist nature of their artists. This is how they turn rebellion into money.
Conversely, it is capitalism that supports, or even creates, romanticism. As art is commodified, it is ‘distanced, alienated, from the artist’. On the one hand, this enables creators to blame the cultural industries for the commercialisation of their art. On the other hand, it is this commodification that enables artists to present themselves as visionary outsiders. Stratton argues that ‘the creator/producer is only able to exist as an “artist” because of the ideological elaboration of the capitalist order, and because of the cash nexus which separates him/her from the consumers’. Ultimately, Stratton believes that the whole economic structure of the record industry is dependent on ‘the apparent conflict between art and capitalism’. Without art, capitalism would not prosper; and without capitalism, art would have nothing to fight against. They need each other to present themselves as special.
Jack Garratt, with his talk of upstreaming and branding, comes from a different place. And yet, despite the fact that we live in an utterly commercial age, and despite the fact that the cash nexus can now exist directly between artist and consumer, and despite the fact that the conflict between art and commerce was only ever ‘apparent’, his talk still feels uncomfortable. We are not ready to let go of romanticism just yet. 

Thursday, 21 April 2016


And so, after saying goodbye to the greatest male artist of the 1970s on January 10, we now say goodbye to the greatest male artist of the 1980s on April 21. It goes without saying that Prince was the most fantastic live performer I ever witnessed. 2016 (What the Fuck is Going On?)

Friday, 15 April 2016

Vinyl in the Digital Age

My review of Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age by Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward is available in the May 2016 edition of Popular Music. It is easy to see why I was asked to review it: it has a similar title to my own book and it covers a similar theme. There are nevertheless few genuine crossovers between the two works. We have the vinyl record as our object of study, but we take it in different directions. And this is a good thing. One odd factor of the Bartmanski and Woodward book that I don't mention in my review is its lack of consistency about what their analogue record is called. Sometimes they talk about 'vinyl', at other times it is 'the vinyl'. They do, however avoid 'vinyls', which is common in some countries and among some age groups. Maybe an international standard should be set?

Monday, 11 April 2016

Collecting the Charts

For pop fans of a certain age, contemporary Britain is a strange place to reside. There are many who, like me, find it difficult to know what the latest number one record is, let alone songs further down the charts. Meanwhile, they are living a parallel existence, where they are caught up in the Top 40 singles of the early 1980s. BBC4 has now reached 1981 with its re-runs of Top of the Pops. These programmes are met with fervent anticipation. Bob Stanley, for example, could not wait for this particular year’s repeats.
Two things, in particular, stand out about these re-runs. One is how memorable the singles are. I regularly know all of the records from a given week’s Top 40 in the 1980s and can recall most of the Top of the Pops performances. The other thing is the quality of the music. The last episode that I watched was from 4 June 1981 (sadly, BBC4 have moved away from synchronising the week of original broadcast with the week of the year in which in which that episode is being repeated). It opened with Siouxsie and the Banshees' brilliant ‘Spellbound’, went on to feature the Jam’s ‘Funeral Pyre’, Odyssey’s ‘Going Back to My Roots’, and Imagination’s astonishing performance of ‘Body Talk’; Adam and the Ants’ ‘Stand and Deliver’ was number one.
I know that I am on dangerous ground here – old people need to be wary about claiming that the past is better than the present – but I do have a defence. One of the reasons why the 1981 charts were superior to today's is because people were buying physical records rather than purchasing downloads or accessing digital streams. And one of the consequences of having analogue formats is that people collected them. The Jam had huge hits in this era because they had an avid fanbase who would buy every release no matter what its quality and pretty much in disregard of whether they had heard the song or not. This was also an era in which bands with less mainstream appeal (Siouxsie and the Banshees, for example) would still have sufficient followers who were dedicated enough and consumerist enough to get their records into the lower regions of the Top 40.
Record companies took advantage of this collecting mentality. One method was to build up demand for a record and make sure that fans knew the release date. They would therefore go out and buy the single in bulk, giving it enough impetus to get into the charts. Another method, arriving slightly later, was to release records in multiple formats. This too played to the collector's mindset. Committed fans would buy a song several times over to ensure they had each of its versions. As well as guaranteeing a high first-week entry, this method could also prolong a song’s success. A case in point was Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who maintained ‘Two Tribes’ presence at number one by regularly releasing new 12” remixes during its chart run.
But why should this result in better music, particularly if the fans were collecting artefacts rather than songs? Here we have to address the reasons why fans become fans in the first place. They become devoted to artists because they sense a special something in them. This usually derives from the music itself (even if they end up buying every release or going to every possible performance by an artist, regardless of their quality, they will have been attracted in the first place because of a record that they found outstanding) and because of the personality of the performer (fans repeatedly invest in an artist when they feel a strong bond). And this bond persists. I love ‘Spellbound’ not just because it is a great song, but because Siouxsie was a transformative artist and she transformed me.
And what of now? We live in an era when hits really are hits. This has produced numerous great songs, but overall a sense of commitment – to artists, to performances, to the charts, to anything other than the song itself – has been lost. Streaming, in particular, has meant that the charts are based more on use value than they are on collecting appeal. One consequence of the fandom of collecting physical records was a fans’ partisan enjoyment in following those records' successes in the charts. Today, there is less need to know where a song has got to and what its position is because there is less of a bond with the record (if you have streamed it, you might not even have paid for it and yet you will have affected its position in the charts) and there is less of a bond with the artist (one consequence of buying records was that you entered into financial and commodified bonds with the performer). 
Fandom does still play a part in the Top 40, but it is now largely the preserve of teen idols, as Justin Bieber’s Yuletide domination of the charts testifies. Older music collectors, meanwhile, are buying vinyl re-issues and they are lost in the hit parades of 1981.