It's gonna take a new kind of messiah to evade pop's gigantic black hole.
First things first, I realise that predicting what pop music is going to do next is a very stupid thing to do. I also realise that because of that there's no way I'm getting out of this article without looking stupid. Watch me fall on my sword.
“It’s very hard to do prognosis with music, you tend to extrapolate from current trends, but then all kinds of unforeseen things happen,” says Simon Reynolds, the music writer and journalist famed for his books Rip It Up And Start Again (on the history of post-punk) and Retromania (on our musical fetishisation of the past). “There’s a rock book written in 1975 and in the last chapter the guy, Tony Palmer, quite understandably imagines that the future will involve more Mike Oldfield rock-as-classical type music, long instrumental LPs, etc. He has absolutely no sense that punk is about to happen. By the time the book was actually published, music had completely changed.”
Well, even though I don't want to spend the rest of my life getting heckled in the street like Tony Palmer, in the last few years the music industry has changed in ways that will alter how it operates in the future. First off...
EVERYONE IS POOR
One of the big changes that’s happened in the music industry is that it’s lost a crapload of money. It’s not on its knees, A&Rs are still paid six-figure salaries to hang out at things like In The City and SXSW becoming drugs friends with hype bands. But the absurd business model in which a label would only have to turn a tenth of the acts they signed into successes, so that one Scouting For Girls could support a soup kitchen full of Delphics, is over. This is actually more embarrassing for a lot of people who work in music than full-blown bankruptcy. Industry wideboys who cut their gold teeth in the bountiful 90s say their style has been cramped, they feel like Miquita Oliver getting a payday loan or Michael Barrymore forced to get pool stairs.
But it’s not just labels that are strapped for cash. Potential artists are worse off than ever. In the 80s, Thatcher’s Britain was oddly kind to musicians. It was relatively easy to get a council flat or at least find somewhere to squat. People in bands could claim the dole as a “musician’s grant”. Bands like Pulp and The Stone Roses spent years tolerating Kwik Save frozen pizzas and free emergency dental care before making their fortunes. Those opportunities have been slowly stripped away, first by the workfare schemes of the 1990s and then by round upon round of austerity. This means most people making music need to make money straight away, or be able to afford not to.
The latter group, i.e. bands who went to Bedales, are doing reasonably well. Mumford & Sons are one of the biggest bands in the world, but, understandably, it took them a long time to persuade labels the public wanted to hear banjos and hoedowns. But don't let their appearance fool you: they might dress like the amiable peasants the Irish Tourist Board likes to pretend the Emerald Isle is full of, but really their ancestors were the guys the peasants left bombs out by the roadside for.
Take the rich kids out of the equation and you’re left with an industry of people who can’t afford to bet the wrong way. That can be a good thing, forcing artists to stop dicking around and get on with it, but it can also leave music vulnerable to forces outside of its control.
CONSERVATIVE AMERICA WILL RUIN EVERYTHING
While physical formats have been officially declared dead, the internet on its own isn't powerful enough yet to make popstars global stars, unless you're as talented as Psy or the £1 Fish Man. In the vacuum, radio wields unfathomable influence over pop music.
In the UK, many acts are dropped by labels long before they release any music, because Radio 1 have said they’re not interested. But by comparison to most US radio, Radio 1 is an avant-garde noise experiment programmed by Goatsnake and Throbbing Gristle.
"There are some stations in LA that only play between 12 and 20 songs. That’s it, on rotation, over and over again,” says Jazz Summers, the founder of Big Life Management who has spent 30 years helping break UK artists, including Wham! and La Roux, in the US. “At the start of the 80s it was easier. You’d show up at the radio station with a bag of coke and a bag of money and give them the song. Sorted.”
The biggest reason for the lack of diversity on US radio is genre, or, as they call it, “format”. After hearing a hundred gawky, Mercury-nominated bands from Shropshire telling interviewers that they can’t be pigeonholed, you might think that the old labels – rock, pop, hip-hop, dance, etc – had succumbed to the death of a thousand Paul Morley thinkpieces. But in US radio, bands aren’t just pigeonholed but vacuum packed into bizarre sounding formats like Top 40, Hot Adult Contemporary, Rhythmic and Active Rock. These formats have unwritten but incredibly strict rules about which songs fall into which specific genre.
For example, there are hundreds of "Rhythmic" stations (I know, it’s like they’re being categorised by Reagan himself) that only deal in the cross-section of EDM and hip-hop. If you make a "Rhythmic" song, and it’s supported by your label, it’s pretty easy to get on these stations. As such, the Rhythmic format played a crucial role in the rise of OMGUETTALOLPOP and its upsetting offshoots. If you try to deviate from the rules too much, you won’t get any airplay at all.
“US labels often advise us to ‘mix’ our artists for US radio,” says Summers. That means removing wayward instruments, lightening guitars, turning down drums, until everything sounds as close as possible to Maroon 5. For proof, listen to The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers, a record written by Richie Edwards when he was suffering from severe depression, alcoholism and anorexia, described by one reviewer as “so bleak it makes In Utero sound like a Westlife album”. Then listen to the version that was re-mixed for American audiences, and tell me it doesn’t sound like The Dandy Warhols doing a More Than advert.
SEX WILL KEEP SELLING
Sexual lyrics, from "Afternoon Delight" to "Rock The Boat", have always been part of the way pop sells itself. But another thing that’s changed is the type of sex everyone’s having. I’m all for the slow seduction of Donna Summer, or the penis-shattering dry humping of Konshens – but the sex that dominates today is more depraved – it’s Brody from Homeland and his 20 seconds of jackhammer thrusting.
Whether you're privy to Flo-Rida telling you to blow his whistle or Rihanna’s endless recycling of Roy Chubby Brown innuendo, a lot of the chart now sounds like it was written by the leers who rub their cock into the small of your back on a busy night at Propaganda.
Rita Ora, perhaps the biggest British pop star to be “launched” last year, had a lot going for her. She was already on the cover of magazines by the time her first single, "R.I.P.", came out. Yet it was still deemed necessary to begin the song with Tinie Tempah making shit jokes about her giving him head. “I'll make you call me Daddy / Even though you ain't my daughter / Tongue in cheek / Give me some time to drink / Slow and steady for me / Like a jezzy for me." Not to get all Deborah Orr about this, but if you’re launching yourself as a popstar do you really want some Jazzy Jeff apologist calling you a "jezzy" before you’ve even sung your first verse?
THE X FACTOR IS OVER
The two big challenges to radio’s dominance in breaking acts over the past decade are the internet (obvs) and telly. The internet is obviously central to the way bands are broken, but as of yet, it’s unable to make them stars. “The nature of digital culture seems to encourage niche-ification but it seems to be harder for a convergence of energy around something that has any kind of long-term, sustained existence,” says Reynolds. “Instead you get a billion people clicking on to 'Gangnam Style'. Which can be delightful but it doesn’t make for a convulsive all-change like punk, or grunge, when the sound of the mainstream completely flips into something else.”
TV, however, does have the power to get a big pull. Getting a sync on a big show, or a band on The X Factor forces radio to take notice. This has been a bit of a lifeline to the industry. “I couldn’t get Snow Patrol on US Radio for love nor money. Then they got a song on Grey’s Anatomy. I called the next day to see if that would change stations' minds, and it had already been playlisted on 30 stations,” says Summers.
But the dominance of shows like The X Factor and American Idol in the States is also waning. XIX Entertainment is Simon Fuller’s entertainment behemoth that produces American Idol. “Idol is still one of the biggest shows in the US, but obviously we’re looking to the future,” their spokesman said. “Our approach today is to partner with star talent like the Beckhams or Jennifer Lopez to produce new shows and ventures that they can own with us. We’re doing this in music, as well as in fashion, dance, sport and film, as a way of creating new entertainment ideas.”
The shift away from music to entertainment focused shows is going to continue; with scripted reality TV shows about DJs seemingly the next big thing. More stars are going to give more of themselves over to the reality TV machine, with diminishing rewards. Already sanded down and sexed-up by radio, reality TV, for many, will be how pop’s black hole sucks them in.
THE RELENTLESS PULL OF POP’S BLACK HOLE
As an increasingly desperate industry has given more power to anachronistic formats like radio and TV, the result has been pop music that, although it doesn’t sound the same, sort of just is. Emeli Sande, Jessie J, Rita Ora, Calvin Harris and One Direction are the biggest new UK acts of the last couple of years – each of them hyper-stylised and hyper-bland, making songs that fit neatly into US radio formats, packaged in cultureless videos that make them marketable in multiple territories. Personality has been replaced with a vague, shop-bought sense of cool. They exist in a vacuum.
“Another thing that goes is the sense of being human,” says popstar-in-waiting A*M*E. “People patronise you, they tell you what to say and that’s what the industry is like. Some people fall into that trap. They just become static all the time. It’s boring.”
Most heart-breaking is that the black hole sucks in popstars that once seemed exciting, turning them into “just believe in yourself”, bullshit-spouting cogs. Lil’ Wayne, Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks have all been sucked into the melée, despite once seeming like its antidote.
“I’d love to hear a big change in the sound of music and the return of some huge totemic figures on a par with a Bowie or a Morrissey or Kate Bush. However, I'm fairly convinced that these things are unlikely to happen, because of the way the music industry and media operates. Right now, I’d be happy if there were just a regular supply of surprises, small or large,” says Reynolds.
The black hole is not purely a force for evil. David Guetta’s "Titanium", Taylor Swift’s "Trouble", and Stooshe’s "Black Heart" are massive songs from last year that have been focus-grouped and produced-by-committee, by artists who have been pushed to the middle ground from niche genres. All have come out as, frankly, pretty banging. But it’s also not a force for originality. If a new genre or sound comes along, pop's black hole will strip it for radio-friendly parts and repurpose them for its own ends before the nascent scene gets a chance to blossom into the mainstream. The industry's anointed popstars get a bit of life breathed into them – even if their songs are just shonky collages of random shit haphazardly blasted together – and the innovators are tainted by association.
HOW TO ESCAPE IT
This article is focused on a small percentage of stars who will attempt global fame, but there’s plenty of pop that falls between the gaps of US radio genres and outside of ITV talent shows. There are artists – like A*M*E, Sky Ferreira, Solange and Disclosure – that could circumvent the old industry framework and become global stars on their own. All the elements are there, there just hasn’t been a popstar to get it all right yet.
The first thing it’d take is a future-thinking label. PMR Recordings is a Universal imprint that has the right idea. They’ve signed Jessie Ware, Julio Bashmore, Disclosure and T-Williams – four artists who make music at pop’s more lively fringes. They have the constraints of the major label (they have to turn a profit) but they do so by building slowly from a core audience of people who will support artists from the beginning and then pushing the marginal into the mainstream.
It also requires an artist to breakthrough with a hit that doesn’t compromise, like, let’s say So Solid Crew or Azealia Banks did. But it also requires them, once they’ve reached the big time, to not give up on everything that made people like them with a boorish cover of TLC’s "Waterfalls", or a guest feature from Dappy. It requires them to keep saying no to that shit, over and over and over again until they’re blue in the face. “I’m not about to start playing the Sainsbury’s festival because I want mums to buy my records. I won’t script my between-song banter like some people have asked me. You’ve got to be the person you are,” says A*M*E. See, it’s easy.
Finally it requires people who call themselves "content-producers" to stop going to meetings all day and deliver on the internet’s promise of surpassing television and radio as a way to bring new music to a mass audience. The future of TV and radio is obviously online. Embarrassing mobile-sponsored music shows on YouTube have not set a good precedent, but XIX believe there’s a chance. "We believe that music still has a lot of potential in TV formats, but it needs a fresh approach and an entrepreneurial spirit to create something vibrant and new. A music show, even quite a traditional one, that went out on one of the social media sites for example, could be massive. It could reinvigorate the industry as a whole and help break a lot of artists, but things like that are a huge challenge to take on.”
Summers agrees: “Increasingly, one or two stations will take risks, and they’re listened to by a much wider group. Most of the time I ignore people telling us to remix songs for US radio and hope that the radio catches up with us. It can be a longer, more drawn out way of doing things and it doesn’t always work, but in the end you want your artist's sound to be intact.”
If a new pop star (like a proper star, who gets on the Grammys and that, not bloody Iggy Azalea) can launch themselves using this machinery, it would open the door for others to do the same, refocusing the balance of power and starting a new route into the industry. But that's far from certain, and if you want an indication of the rocky road ahead, the two biggest rappers of the past decade remain Pitbull and Flo-Rida.
Follow Sam Wolfson on Twitter: @samwolfson
Illustration by Marta Parszeniew.
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