The Future of Guitar Music
Is it dead? Is it coming back? Why can no one agree? Who gives a shit?
Guitar music, despite my best efforts, isn't dead. It never has been. I'm 75 percent sure it never will be. But, dear god, the planet loves to worry about it. And I guess that's why, over the last few years, you've read dozens of articles centred around words such as: "guitar", "is", "isn't" "alive", "dead", "future", "music", "saviours" and "back".
From Yngwie Malmsteen to recent X Factor Plan C James Arthur, the guitar remains in a steady balance between general and constant use. It is an instrument that is still readily available at Argos, has never majorly fallen in price and inspires our least inspiring West End musicals. The Camden Barfly remains open, while Denmark Street is the only bit of WC2 that has managed to avoid destruction at the hands of Crossrail. Yet somehow, according to industry insiders at Radio One, NME and (that most respected and time honoured bastion of rock n' roll) Kiss FM; without it ever having gone anywhere, the guitar is on its way BACK.
A key problem with discussing "guitar music" as a single entity is one of definition. If we're naîve enough to think that guitar music may simply refer to music played on guitar, then those seeking "guitar music" need not look far. In fact, they just have to look at the charts; or maybe the BPI's gold disc pressing plants, because Ed Sheeran's and Mumford and Sons' Babel shifted two and 1.5 million units worldwide in 2012 alone respectively. Babel-icious.
So, if we're trying to define this "guitar music" – whose disappearance has been so public – perhaps we should focus on a more specific term; maybe "electric guitar music"? Well, frankly that's not doing too badly, either. Last year, Jack White, Linkin Park, Bruce Springsteen and Matchbox Twenty all scored Billboard number one albums in the US, while The xx, The Vaccines, The Killers and Muse all enjoyed number one records over here. With that in mind, we can probably agree that it's not success that people are worried about. Maybe The Great Return of Guitar Music refers to quality rather than success? Hmm, well you only need to go slightly off the iTunes homepage to find hundreds of bands making great records every year; with Tame Impala, Blood Orange, The Horrors, Kurt Vile, Beach House and The Walkmen being just the first names that enter my head.
Let's look into the left field: experimental guitar music also continues to thrive, with Ariel Pink, Earth, Josephine Foster, Sun Araw and R Stevie Moore all making The Wire's cover in the last year alone, while metal marches on confidently, oblivious to all of the above and all of the below. So what's the problem?
Well, maybe the problem is that it's not 2005 and we don't have The Kooks, Razorlight and The Bravery all jostling for space in the top five on a weekly basis. But that's a good thing, right?If you feel like you didn't get to hear The Dead 60s' "Riot On the Radio" enough in those days, I will happily lend you the seven-inch. In fact, keep it. In fact, if that era is anything to go by, guitar music actually felt most dead when it was supposedly the most alive it had been since Noel Gallagher moved out of Supernova Heights.
The guitar continues to hold a consistent place in our lives on both a commercial and cultural level, yet we're still patronised on the subject of how popular it's about to become by the UK media every other January. This has been going on for at least the last decade. NME's pre-occupation with it all is, at least, understandable – they've been Miss Havisham in Converse since 2001, yet to come to terms with the fact that The Strokes' Is This It really was "It". And "It" was the final line drawn under indie as a cultural phenomenon, leaving only a dressing up box of sound and style.
Next to NME's unfettered passion (they weren't lying about loving Howler), the rest of the media's attitude towards guitars feels a little calculated and tokenistic. After all, UK music tips are no longer honest astrology. I myself have been signed, I myself have featured in the BBC Sound of... poll longlist and I have come to realise just how much the BBC poll has grown since it was launched in '03 and how much its inner workings affect the way labels deal with new acts. I wouldn't call it a self-fulfilling prophecy per sé (for every Ellie Goulding there's a Daisy Dares You), but the exposure it offers is invaluable, so releases are often timed to coincide with the time votes are cast, or when a winner is scheduled to be announced. The poll itself is also heavily informed by its voters' urge to have got it right; to have backed the multi-million dollar artist. After all, the pundits aren't voting for what they like, they're voting for what they think will be big. There's not much point championing an artist who isn't going to have an album out any time soon, although that did work for Jai Paul. Respect.
In 2013, it makes sense that a lot of people are talking about Haim, Peace, Palma Violets and Swim Deep as solid bets for success. But let's not confuse four great signed bands (with more exposure than their peers) for a movement or a return or anything other than what it is: some good bands. Three of the above, alongside Savages and two more bands I can't be bothered to Google (we'll exclvde Chvrches dve to their witch hovse spell checker and genvine lack of gvitar) make up six of the 15 spaces on this year's Sound of... poll longlist. Throw King Krule's Telecaster into the equation and that's seven of 15. Yes! The future just tipped in our favour, and it's 46.7 percent rock. Let us all go forth and proselytise on 2013's rich, six-stringed musical landscape. Or, if you'd rather hedge your bets, you could always go with The Telegraph's more sensible appraisal, announcing guitars as back on December 10th and dead again less than one month later.
There is some argument that this yearly new artist cycle is just a facet of a much larger cycle that sees genre popularity move in repetitive waves. It's usually given as something like: pop --> dance --> rap --> rock. Although I've always found this an interesting notion, I'd actually be inclined to disagree. I'll leave the real philosophising on the subject to Simon Reynolds, but what I would suggest is that over the last few years, instead of an actual genre cycle, we've seen trends for certain production styles finding popularity throughout dance, rap, pop AND rock. If one were to put together a DJ set using only songs from the last year that employ trance synths and "big" beats with half-time breakdowns, you could veer between Calvin Harris, A$AP Rocky, Coldplay, Nicki Minaj, Wiley, KoЯn and Little Mix without a problem. And everyone in the crowd would probably have an OK time. Yet we still divide and discuss music under subheadings that should have died with the different sections of Virgin Megastore, but have somehow outlived HMV.
Considering that so many artists in such supposedly different styles spend so much time striving to sound like each other these days, it seems backwards for critics and tastemakers to talk in the broad terminology of genres, or even more broadly, instruments. Music tastes of both fans and artists alike no longer go hand in hand with what we wear, where we're from or how the music itself is made. Coupled with that, predictions themselves seem to hark back to another time, when fans couldn't keep up with every single element of an artist's progress at the click of a button. The best musical moments in any year come completely out of the blue anyway, so maybe we should put our crystal balls down. Maybe we should start trying to remember how to write about what music sounds like and how it makes you feel, rather than kowtowing to the slow turning cogs of an industry struggling to keep up with how music is shared and loved in the internet age.
Will relatively good music that gets talked about all the time and gets played on the radio sell? Probably. Is guitar music dead? No. It'll outlive you.
Follow Fred on Twitter: @fredmacpherson
Illustration by Marta Parszeniew.