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Britain’s Music Industry Needs to Take Lessons from the Indie Gaming Scene

New music is in a funk, with base competence alone serving as a selling point. Labels would be wise to look to gaming for guidance through these depressing greys.

by Mike Diver
May 15 2015, 6:00pm

'Sleeping Dogs' found favor amongst critics where other 'GTA' clones could not.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with another gaming journalist because, believe it or not, people covering interactive entertainment are social creatures, too, regularly enjoying real-life conversations with human beings who aren't faceless swear buckets on the other side of a generic FPS capture the flag session. And also because we had business to discuss, but that's beside this point—which is that something she said to me has stuck with me ever since.

"Why," she posited, "would any development team coming together now bother to make a game that would only be, perhaps, the fourth-best version of what Grand Theft Auto does?" Actually, she might have said second best, but you don't need to rummage long through this and the previous generation's array of open-world games for evidence of most falling way short of the depth Rockstar's dominant series provides.

There's Sleeping Dogs (above), a good version of a great game, liked somewhat against the odds by a press enamored with its exotic aesthetics. Another writer told me, only earlier this week, how Square Enix's Hong Kong-set GTA-wannabe actually made him hungry, because the smells and flavors of its virtual city felt likethe real thing. Isn't that a wonderful thing to say about a video game? That just playing it made its gamer hungry? Anyway, you've also got the Infamous and Prototype series, "superhero" versions of a great game. Flick through a few more boxes of blue and green plastic and dog-eared inserts in your local second-hand retailer of physical software and you'll inevitably find Watch Dogs, a grim-souled sourpuss version of a great game. And so on: a whole lot of worlds to explore, but none with the almost endless appeal of a Los Santos or Liberty City.

Gradually, studios are learning that the popular genres—football sims, fighting titles, sandbox adventures—have become closed off to newcomers looking to go big. We have FIFA and PES, Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, Grand Theft Auto, and now the superlative Witcher 3. Look at the third-person action market and few games released since the Xbox 360 made its way under telly boxes the world over have come anywhere close to the adrenaline-soaked Hollywood showboating of Gears of War. Halo and Call of Duty are untouchable unit-shifters in the first-person-shooter sector. The top table for gaming franchises is a tough to gain a seat at—and once you're there, most of the people below will consistently throw abuse at you for daring to stick to a formula that works.

Related: Watch our documentary on Magic: The Gathering:

Really rather good games like Binary Domain, Bulletstorm, and Vanquish are frequently considered "underrated" by hacks running up Top Ten Games You Never Played lists because content, as they couldn't match the runaway sales of the established pace setters, those games coming out of companies with promotional budgets to burn. And when a studio's big investment reaps but meager rewards, questions get asked. It doesn't matter that Platinum Games' (genuinely thrilling) Vanquish has now sold around a million copies globally—on its week of release, in its makers' home of Japan, it debuted way down at 14 on the Xbox 360 chart. Not great. Pretty awful, actually, and the kind of performance that would get other studios closed down.

This is why gaming is changing, rapidly. Game makers who have taken knocks working on bigger projects are thinking differently, more creatively, operating in smaller teams and sticking to tighter budgets. The results can be staggering, and the independent games scene has never been so verdant—and it'll only get better, as PlayStation and Microsoft evolve their business models to an ever-more-accepting space for indie developers to work within. And while the console giants remain gatekeepers of the kind we no longer see in PC circles, where Steam allows anyone to put their release on a retail platform, there can be no doubt that they're so much more clued up now as to what comes next.

'Vanquish' is really rather good, and you should play it.

I have no doubt whatsoever that the powers that be at Sony are more excited about upcoming indie exclusives like No Man's Sky, Rime, and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture than they are for whatever the next Killzone turns out to be. Not that they'd tell you that, naturally. We see the future in these games, in their creators. Foundations are being laid for developers who want no part of the triple-A machine to build upon. It's exciting, isn't it? When I wrote earlier this year that we're entering a "new golden age" (uh, how very cliché) for gaming, I meant it. I can't get a grip on the possibilities available to weavers of wonderful digital experiences to be, as they are so very near to infinite.

In music, things are different. Things are not brilliant. I spent last night exploring Brighton's The Great Escape, strolling between the coastal city's spread of small-and-sweaty venues to spy the New What's Next in the industry—the bands that would love to be choking our radios and spilling all over Spotify for years to come. What I saw and heard depressed the crap out of me, but that's a feeling that's been building for a couple of years now.

Until the beginning of 2015, I had held down editorial positions at music publications for a decade. I know what's likely to be a hit, and what isn't. I see through the bullshit. I can so easily peel away the façade of any new act's campaign and cut to the core of the supposed USP—which, scarily frequently right now, simply isn't there. I left my full-time position in the music industry by choice, before I was wholly overcome by the varying shades of grey covering the once-colorful cacophony of breaking bands that had been my life and livelihood since The X Factor was pitched as enjoyable Saturday night entertainment, rather than a production line for shit-eating sycophants. I left when it was clear that no new band in the UK was really turning me on, that not one act was doing something that felt fresh, that got my blood flowing that bit quicker, or that had the tips of my fingers tingling. My heart hasn't skipped a beat in the presence of others made by MPCs for months and months.

'No Man's Sky' is an indie title that is shaping up to be a major commercial hit, too.

Every act I saw on day one of The Great Escape was a spotlit and fashionably garbed equivalent to a fourth-rate Grand Theft Auto. I watched a band from Paris reflect the back catalogue of any number of synth-rock outfits from the past 20 years. I watched a band from London whose "ambient electronica"—to quote from the festival's program—seemed to be an afterthought to their on-stage selling point of having two drummers and two vocalists. Every now and then the need for the brace of kits became apparent, but while the band's female singer led the outfit lyrically, her wingman's role was Just to Look Good in a Hat. I watched a gently hyped singer from LA lose her "experimental songwriting" in the stretched 6 PM shadow of FKA twigs, so very far from a source that, itself, isn't exactly tearing up any precedents.

Don't misunderstand my critique for complete dismissal—each of these acts did something(s) I enjoyed. I didn't show up at each show, stay for one song, and piss off elsewhere. I watched, listened, processed, and concluded. Firstly, that competence seems to have substituted inspiration for a lot of coming-up acts, and that even innovation by a single step at a time is a concept lost on jangling indie crews who, if they see a career in their jolly but insubstantial fare, are outright delusional. And secondly, perhaps it's generational, or in other words: maybe it's me?

On the way home from my final show of the night, I thought about where music was ten years or so ago. If these musicians are in their early 20s today, they'd have been in their early teens a decade back, perhaps, when music started to take hold of their senses, to take its place in the shaping of their identities. For me, between say 1992 and 1995, that meant Nas and Nirvana, Mudhoney and Massive Attack, The Prodigy and Pulp, the Beasties and Blur, and loads more. I thought that was a rich period—I expect those ten years older than me would say the same of their own teenage favorites. 2004's top-selling album worldwide was by Usher, and the same year saw James Blunt's Back to Bedlam begin its course to ten-times platinum status, while "Indie" was ruled by The Killers, Kasabian, The Libertines, and That Fucking Mylo Song. Hardly the perfect environment to get fledgling musicians pumped up.

'Everybody's Gone to the Rapture' is a bucolic post-apocalypse game that removes any grey from its environmental equation.

Perhaps TV talent shows are to blame for acts of genuine artistry falling from the upper end of the mainstream charts—Leona Lewis's Spirit of 2007 was the fourth-best-selling album of the 00s in the UK, with over three million copies sold in her home territory alone. Perhaps the decline of the traditional music press has played a part in where we're at now, where NME feels forced to put reliable, likable, but changing-no-spots dad-rocker Noel Gallagher on its cover eight times in as many months (I exaggerate, obviously) to get copies off the Tesco shelves, because they know they can never Do Another Godspeed again. (Bloody hell, Mogwai vs Blur, remember that?)

Whatever the reason for new music feeling anything but right now, there's no doubt in my mind that we're in something of a funk. I still receive emails telling me all about great hopes for 2015 and beyond, and they are without fail a relative rerub of something I've heard before, done better. I was invited to have my say in the 2015 BRIT Critics' Choice shakedown, as I have been previously, but I declined to contribute this time. I don't see the point. Look at the winners since the award was introduced in 2008: Adele, Florence and the Machine, Ellie Goulding, Jessie J, Emeli Sandé, Tom Odell, Sam Smith, James Bay. These are the acts that the British music industry is claiming to represent something new and exciting, something that can inspire the next generation of BRIT-winners, even. They've all the edginess of a damp flannel between them, and every one of them was assured success long before their statuette took up pride of place in their downstairs bog.

When 'Grand Theft Auto' is giving you all the open-world thrills you need, why play anything else?

Music needs to learn from gaming, quickly. I appreciate that the costs involved are significantly less—it's far cheaper to send out a stack of promo CDs to 1,000 journalists in the hope that five write something positive about what they're hearing than it is flying a handful of games critics to the other side of the world to get immersed in the creative process behind next year's record-breaker-to-be that ultimately picks up an Edge 6/10 and 300 people lose their jobs. But while the risk is reduced, the logic is transferable. Nobody needs the fourth-best Radiohead, the close-but-not-quite cousin of Arcade Fire, the Florence who forgot her machine but did pack an acoustic guitar so now we can all listen to her lovely, oh-so-delicate folksy songs while collectively thinking: We already have a Laura Marling, thanks.

Why am I watching a band with two drummers and a hat play music that sounds a lot like a whole load of records I already own and haven't listened to in years because they've dated worse than Dale Winton's student audience appeal? Why am I watching an on-trend singer flick her hair around while her trackpants-wearing DJ-cum-producer companion chews gum and looks so detached from the music that, on the other side of his laptop screen, there's probably a sedate game of Hearthstone going on. Why am I going back to The Great Escape later on today to witness more of this?

Because, just maybe, something will spark like nothing has before. And there's no thrill quite like being there when that happens. Music can move a man like no game can—it can happen instantly, uncontrollably, and the impact is worn for a lifetime. Music can change the world—or, at least, the way we see it—in a way that games can't, because the obstacles to access are entirely non-existent today: anyone can use a streaming service and immediately plug into a personal revelation. Gaming will never be as cool as music. Gaming will never inspire fashion and shape youth culture like music can. But music can learn a lot from gaming, and cutting a substantial amount of the slack holding it back from further progression would be a great start.

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Terrible industry bastards with delegate passes pushing past me at shows and not even saying excuse me