Column: Poptimist #9
Column: Poptimist #9
Back in the Summer, the NME embarked on a campaign. It announced its intention to right a great musical wrong-- the failure of the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" to make it to #1 in the UK singles charts, 30 years ago. The establishment, according to rumour reported as fact, kept the Pistols off the top back then, and finagled another week for Rod Stewart so as not to embarrass Her Majesty.
Well, maybe the establishment did that, and maybe it didn't. It's enough that the story is credible at all, a great bit of punk mythmaking, and you might have thought the NME would have left a good tale well alone. Instead a range of worthies-- a Foo Fighter, a Beastie Boy, Slash-- were trundled out to talk sincerely about how important the Pistols had been. And indeed they were important, so important that quite a lot of people have already got their album and don't need to pay 99p to download an old song off it. As the week of reckoning drew near, the NME changed its tune-- now the campaign was "to get the Sex Pistols back into the Top 40". Even this proved to be too much as "God Save the Queen" made a sheepish appearance at #42. Injustice had clearly prevailed.
Had the NME succeeded, what might it have meant? I think we can assume the monarchy would have ridden out the storm. But a 30-year-old punk record at #1 would have sent a message about the NME's influence, and more importantly would have served as a pretty brutal rebuke to the rest of pop, the new singles it was supplanting. Punk's meaning in British pop, the Big Fact about it, is that it scorched the earth and cleared the decks. To generalise wildly, for an American audience punk stands for something creative-- an independent ethos and a DIY spirit. It does stand for those things in Britain as well but also contains a destructive spirit, a declaration of Year Zero against what had gone before, no matter its quality: "No Elvis, Beatles, and the Rolling Stones in 1977".
And this is why the NME's campaign was always going to lack resonance. Without the annihilating potential of punk the Pistols not reaching #1 is a simple quirk of chartology and hardly motivating. Britain's music fans don't want their earth scorched at the moment, thank you very much. And the NME doesn't honestly want to scorch it, because even if it can't place an old record where it wants in the charts, in general terms the NME has won.
A few weeks ago a friend pointed me towards the aggregated music interest lists on Facebook-- essentially a survey of which genres and acts members are putting in the music section of their profiles, organised by region. The top five acts listed by Londoners, for example, are the Killers, Snow Patrol, Razorlight, Muse, and Oasis. And actually, these are also the top five acts in 12 of the 16 other UK regions, with two more swapping Oasis for the Kooks.
Facebook stats are interesting because-- unlike a social network like last.fm, which specifically attracts music fans-- they also capture the music tastes of people who aren't that into music: In an era where sales charts don't tell you much, Facebook is a good way of defining the "mainstream" for younger listeners. Of course it's not perfect-- it's skewed towards students and ex-students-- but these aren't insignificant results. What do they tell us? At best they suggest that the British university experience is fairly homogenised across the country. At worst-- and more seriously if you're not a British student-- they hint that the regional scenes and differences which have been a motor of British pop since Merseybeat have smoothed over.
One other obvious, but interesting, thing about the Facebook stats-- these are all rock bands, and all rock bands who built a UK fanbase partly through being championed by the NME. They don't all sound the same, and I'm sure there are striking differences between fans of Oasis and the Killers, or Muse and Razorlight. But in broad terms their popularity shows that the NMENME.
But hold on-- it's not just the NME who endorses this stuff, is it? The rest of the British music press do, and so largely do the newspapers. And radio certainly does-- both commercial radio and Radio 1, Britain's publically financed pop music channel. In fact I don't think, as a listener, I can remember a time of such consensus among the traditional tastemakers in British pop.
It seems to me that the marketing of music in Britain has aligned itself neatly along a classic "diffusion of innovation curve"-- as defined by the communication theorist Everett Rogers back in the early 1960s to describe how successful technologies spread through society. An innovation is first picked up among a minority of innovators with a high degree of involvement in a product category, and probably industry contacts. Early adopters are next: consumers with an interest in innovation and a desire to be "first" in their peer group with something new. The bulk of consumers-- almost three-quarters-- fall into the early majority and late majority categories, leaving a minority of "laggards" who arrive at the innovation very late.
"Innovation" may seem a strange word to apply to Razorlight but the model roughly applies to British rock. The music press online and off caters to the early adopters, Radio 1 the early majority, and commercial radio the late majority-- at which point diffusion is advanced enough that the early adopters have moved on to something else and the NME can be rude about Oasis if it likes. Unlike most new technologies, new rock bands can zip through the diffusion curve very fast, especially as the basic qualities of the product don't change a great deal.
Hasn't it always been like this, though? I would say no: For one thing the NME used to be a great deal poorer at focusing on its target market, but the really important bit of the consensus jigsaw is BBC Radio 1.
Since we're talking the language of business, a word of advice: If you're ever unfortunate enough to find yourself in an office undergoing "business change," get hold of a copy of Simon Garfield's The Nation's Favourite. Published in 1999, it's an oral history detailing the savage reshaping of Radio 1 in the mid-90s, and it's the best guide I know to the backstabbing, politics, and ego meltdown that accompanies a business "reinventing" itself. It's also the book that tells you most about British pop music from the 90s to now.
Briefly, Radio 1's dilemma was that it had a colossal audience but no means of justifying itself as a public service to a government eager to make broadcasting cuts. In 1993, a new head was appointed, during whose reign half the DJs lost their jobs and half the listeners vanished. The station's focus shifted permanently from entertaining a whole nation to bringing new music to its youth, and Garfield's book tracks this move. A position paper, prepared for the BBC by management consultants, is quoted: "Cracking this [credibility] issue will guarantee our future success. Listeners must feel they are listening to the most credible station in the UK."
Listeners probably don't feel this, but it hardly matters: As soon as that became the intention, the ecosystem of UK music changed for good. In order to become credible, Radio 1 became a link in the diffusion chain between the NME (and other niche tastemakers, like pirate radio) and commercial stations. Previously the chain was broken: Credibility and Radio 1 had sat in wary opposition, with the national station as much goad as goal to independent and niche musicians (who in turn probably communicated more across genre with one another). Now it's a clearly marked step to success.
It's easy to understand why the NME and Radio 1 have changed in the way they have: the former has a business to run, the latter has to avoid looking like it does. Whether you feel this is a bad state of affairs or not depends on whether you like the music the UK is currently producing or promoting. A good litmus test might be the compilation album, Established 1967, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of Radio 1 by getting a bunch of today's acts to cover songs from throughout the station's history. The Facebook big five don't contribute but the second tier of newly mainstream acts who fill out those regional charts-- Kasabian, the Kooks, the Stereophonics, the View-- do, and produce dogged, spark-free versions. It's competent, mostly, but hardly exciting.
The diffusion chain from niche to mainstream is keeping a turnover of new acts coming (helped immensely by the marketing fillip the Internet has given bands and PRs). Not all of them make it all the way along the curve, but a career path exists allowing a band to get quickly from early adopters to late majority rapidlty and with blessed credibility intact. In place of manufactured pop, we in Britain have managerial rock-- solid bands who like the right music and tick the right boxes, safe pairs of plectrum-carrying hands. Will the consensus be broken? Does anybody really want it to be? Thirty years on from punk, music in the UK has reached a settlement, with most aesthetic questions presumed answered, like Francis Fukuyama's end of history applied to pop. Though when you think about it, what does "end of history" mean but "no future"?