Friday, 9 January 2015

Thoughts on a grey January / The Worship of metrics

In conversation with a friend in the USA last night we got onto the topic of a potential home for the phenomenally talented young band he is producing. The band, who I shan’t name as this isn’t really about them, are strident, political, engaged true believers in the power of rock ‘n’ roll to transform the dull mundanity of life in the 21st century, not least of all their own. If that sounds old fashioned to you then I would suggest that is your problem, not theirs.

In an increasingly atheistic society, music is a faith that is losing traction; to turn the language of the unbelievers back on themselves. We are all aware that choices for exposure are now made predominantly on the basis of metrics, that distribution of music, coverage, airplay, even live fees are at the mercy of a gaggle of ‘followers’ on social media, the power of the mouse click translated into an ability to shape popular culture with micro second engagement with passing tracks, bereft of context or impact, set adrift on a sea awash with flotsam and jetsam, wreckage of the next big thing or the last great movement.

In the course of that chat we discussed where we might find the new Creation or the new Sub-Pop, labels that we felt would have been a perfect fit when in their pomp for this band. The reasons were precise. In both cases these were labels that had taken the zeitgeist and shaken it at a time when rock culture, that subset of pop music that can bother the mainstream but has never set out to see it as a principal target, was in the severe doldrums. Whether it was the Mudhoney / Nirvana axis that cleared away the dead hand of hair metal in the US and the sub Smiths indie pile up in the UK or the Oasis / SFA / Teenage Fanclub / Primal Scream era of Creation that reintroduced the concepts of proper stardom, rock ‘n’ roll excess both literal and artistic and genuine joy in music and engagement that blew away the tail end, back to metal clich├ęs of grunge’s last gasps, we concluded that there was simply no label like that in existence.

This, in 2015, seems the essence of the problem with what I will call my music culture. That culture is broad in genre, it can accommodate indie guitars with grunge metal, noise pioneering with ambient electronics, crushing techno and beats with acoustic driven sentiments but, at its heart, it is a music of belief and, crucially, at its centre is the idea. The idea that we are doing something against the mainstream culture, the idea that we are right and they are wrong, the idea that we will storm their establishment and change it for a time, the idea that our moments may be brief but they will be many and that those who journey with us will have their lives changed and enriched irrevocably and permanently. This is not an engagement with a like button.
It is easy to counteract this idea. I have released enough records, managed, pr’d and engaged with enough artists and events over 20 years to know very well that the economics of music are perilous and getting more so, that making money from promoting music in any way, from curating great talent, is not a sensible way to live but my simple response is ‘so what?’. If those at the helm are of this opinion they shouldn’t be there. Dreams are not built on certainties, culture is not transformed by careful attention to profit and loss columns. Music is not a career. It is a vocation. That applies as much to those supporting its creation as those at its centre making the stuff. Great art never came from a focus group. In truth nothing of any note came from a focus group, possibly excepting ‘Nuts With Gum’. (Ask a Simpsons fan).

January is, as ever, the month of lists. More so than ever, those high profile bands to watch countdowns, with some notable exceptions, read less like an expression of belief in the transformative power of music and more like an assessment of forward planning metric delivered by a middle manager in a mid range designer suit via Powerpoint on a wet Tuesday in a boutique London hotel. Our culture needs a counterbalance to this endless grey, to the march of the marketeers and their metric worship. If anyone does spot the new Creation or the new Sub-Pop I’d love to know. In the meantime, I’ll keep the faith and, as a wise man once said. keep kicking against the pricks.

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