Friday, January 11, 2008

Music for 2008

My internet's just about to be cut off, as we've "forgotten" to pay the bill, so I thought I'd get some blogging in before it dies for 4 days or so. I posted about New Year's Resolutions last year, and I've decided to try and be more active in my blogging as a resolution for this year, so I won't bother with the boring details of my new aims of keeping fit and healthy.

Instead, I thought I'd whack out some details on music for this year. First I'll get a few recommendations out of the way: Foals, We Are The Physics, Los Campesinos!, Operator Please, Bombay Bicycle Club, Duffy, Black Kids, Crystal Castles. All of these are making great, exciting new music and are for the large part stupidly young. Which is a good thing. Forget Coldplay, Hard-Fi, The Twang, Kasabian, Snow Patrol, Razorlight, MOR stuff like that, and search out some of these for a refreshing taste of new music.

2008 is likely to see yet more innovations and irrevocable changes to the music industry than last year. We saw the incorporation of downloads into official charts and sales figures, saw how the opportunity seemed to glisten for every struggling unsigned band going, saw how this new avenue could be exploited through careful campaigns - Chris Moyles made Billie Piper's Honey to the B get to number 17 in January '07 even though it had originally been released in 1998, while Koopa became the first unsigned band to have a top 40 hit through their relentless download campaign - and then saw how smoothly record companies and online music stores were able to capture the market with considerable and unquestioned ease. In light of how, just 3 or 4 years ago, the big record labels were bemoaning the rise of music downloading and file sharing, the shoe certainly seems to be on the other foot now.

But music, in my opinion, is getting ever more fragmented. When MySpace first emerged, bands that had 25,000 friends were heroes, the power of the underground, the shining examples of good, unsigned new music. But already, MySpace has lost its voice: there are probably a hundred thousand bands on MySpace now - and a lot of these will have 25,000 fans. Yet they'll still be unsigned, and unnoticed. Conversely, multi-million selling acts with big record label backing will have quickly cottoned on to the online phenomenon, and will gain double as many fans as the best unsigned band around in no time, through their backing and support from label channels. The smaller bands have had what should rightfully be 'their' medium descend into a free-for-all, with scope for capitalist-like gains and losses.

The competition for real-time music listening for free on sites like MySpace, as opposed to the non-real-time transaction of actually paying for a CD/download, and listening to it once it's purchased, is also too large. The internet has become congested with a thousand great new bands vying for the same fans, the ones that want that new music buzz, the excitement of finding a new fresh band that no one else really knows. But in the ever-quickening pace of modern technological life, staying loyal, or at least staying in one place, is too lazy and worryingly easy to appear out of touch. Bands are constantly having to produce, to innovate, without the financial resources to do so successfully and competitively, to appeal to the internet consumer, without any tangible reward. It's all very well the Guardian Art pages recommending 10 unsigned acts for 2008 - people aren't going to wait patiently for them to take their time to produce a quality debut LP. They want results straight away, and if not offered, there are 100 unsigned bands good enough, and just waiting, to be recommended elsewhere.

The other area in which the signed and established artists hold a major advantage is in the purchasing of mp3s. Admittedly an unsigned act might have a great track record so far, but why take a risk buying their latest EP when it might be a let down? Why not listen to it for free on their MySpace? Meanwhile, you know what you're likely to get with an established band, so forking out just £0.79p for their new song is bound to be great value. This leads to a situation whereby, for example, Iron and Wine's latest album is available to listen to in full, for free, on his MySpace page, while Red Hot Chili Peppers can suffice with 4 one-minute long song excerpts on theirs. The lengths that up and coming artists have to go to to make strides on the internet is now almost as tough as getting signed through someone liking your demo. The internet might well be the world's most democratic medium, but democracy still needs its leaders and rulers.

So it seems to me that music careers are short-term in the modern world. Who released a debut album last year that you could genuinely tout to being the next Radiohead, REM or even Oasis? By that, I mean a band who will have a decade or more of success, a success that contains several acclaimed albums in a number of years greater than the number of albums, and who will even be given the time to earn the chance to do so? The only example that springs to my mind for a modern band achieving this is Coldplay. Seriously. You might not like them, but the fact is they've had 3 huge albums, and a 4th is guaranteed to be in the pipeline and will only be released when they're happy with it. With new bands, record labels are so caught up in snaffling each Next Big Thing that the Current Big Thing is left in the cold to fend for itself in coming up with the notorious difficult second album. Success is fleeting, and nowadays, seems more subjective than ever. Are The Ting Tings going to be successful because they're being widely regarded now as one of the bright stars for 2008? If they get dropped from their label after one album and are unsigned by the summer of 2009, will they think of themselves as a success? I highly doubt it.

If anything, the rise of the online music industry has segmented the audience further and may in fact lead to a recession in opportunity for new bands like Los Campesinos!. Art is held by all its lovers in their hearts for personal aesthetic reasons and reaches real emotion for those who let it. And a personal sense of this can be gained online: there is something inherently romantic and self-rewarding in being part of a clandestine fan base of a certain band, an appeal which is all too easily propagated through websites and online communities, feeling that connection through the egalitarianism of the internet that our personal interaction and support makes a difference. (It doesn't, much). But this creates a group mentality, a need to compare and contrast with other artists of similar stature, a reason to find faults with other people who are on the same level as your favourite band. Online consuming of music has become a matter of taste insofar as who you like, and when you like it, is more important than what you like, and why. As I've said, it is hard to stay loyal when so much more is going on, and trend followers jumping from one thing to the next leave less behind to remember the bands who once 'were', and divide an audience who should be embracing all of this exciting equal opportunity phenomenon into micro groups of support that hold no power to speak of to offer the bands they love.

I've not even touched on the qualities in possessing a CD as opposed to iTunes telling you you now own the YouthMovie Soundtrack Strategies album, but it's 9 minutes past 2am and I have to be up in 5 hours for work. I'll leave that for another time.

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