Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Sound And Fury Signifying Nothing

Bands are dead. Critics are dead. Music is dead. And so on. After the dissection of the Mercury Prize we move on to the BBC Sound Of list in the annual carnival that is the death grip relationship between the media and the music industry.

I’ve been part of the shrug dressed up as fanfare that is the Sound Of List on a couple of occasions. Times were different when The Ordinary Boys and then The Twang found themselves part of the list. Both bands went on to healthy sales, in the case of the (then) much maligned Twang more than healthy sales and two of the biggest radio hits of the year in ‘Wide Awake’ and ‘Either Way’. Would either have succeeded without their inclusion? Yes. Did their inclusion make a major difference? Not at press, in my world, the press were already on it hence the inclusion. Possibly at radio. What you can say without any shadow of doubt is that their inclusion was a small part of the first stage of what, for want of a better word we shall call their ‘career’. And wildly divergent their paths were since then. The Ordinary Boys went on to a singer on celeb tv, a massive hit and then a void, one that I understand all have come out of ok, which is good news. The Twang were hung out to dry but have simply continued and now find themselves out of the other side, happily making records (Rory Attwell produced the latest one so clearly they aren’t poison in the way that some would imagine) and touring to a dedicated and loyal fanbase, playing to numbers that many of those in later Sound Of Polls could only dream of at their height and certainly will never see in the future.

The debate this time is centred around the make up of the list. Bands are notable by their absence, QED bands are dead. The media loves to declare extinction in music, in the last decade or so I can recall dance music, hip hop, rock and indie all being ‘dead’ at some point, normally just before the chosen corpse rises Lazarus like to dominate the discussion if not the charts. The Sound Of List is, to a greater degree, no better or worse than all the other ‘Tips for the next year’ pieces that drop like portents of doom / the chimes of the future (*delete according to pessimism) around the close of one year and the start of the next. No great surprise there given that many of the writers and broadcasters of such pieces are themselves part of the quasi illuminati voting panel that declare the 15 to watch for the national broadcaster.

What ‘The Sound Of’ and its ilk really represent is an agenda setter for the media to fill up the first month or so of any given new year. In essence, and despite many ‘failures’ across the lists over the years, the bulk of those chosen are guaranteed airplay on Radio One and therefore will undoubtedly achieve some kind of position within the national consciousness for that short window of time. Clever record companies will tie their appearance into the release of debut albums in a quiet month scoring higher chart placings than would otherwise be the case on lower sales allowing folk like me to add the epithet ‘Top Ten album’ to the press release announcing the post album single release. To pretend otherwise is to amplify a media construct to national discussion.

As for bands being dead, a dispassionate look across the music landscape reveals this to be, frankly, utter bollocks. Chvrches look very much like a band to me, as do Palma Violets, Parquet Courts, Savages, Fat White Family etc ad nauseum. One commentator on The Guardian’s outlet for bile and tosh suggested that record companies had devised some Machiavellian pact to stop signing bands on the basis that they are ‘too expensive’. He has clearly never paid session musicians to replicate the job of a signed (and therefore free) musician. What the list may reveal to us is that Radio One are not particularly keen on bands but when did we ever look to Radio One to break anything of note? Those writing obituaries should beware, history tells us that premature declarations of ‘facts’ often leave their makers looking less than intelligent.

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