One of the things I hated about the pre-internet music industry was that everything was geared around the top 40, and the top 40 was geared around the genre(s) du jour.
For example, when the Britpop band’s started out the industry told them they were wasting their time because the market wanted American Grunge. Once the Britpoppers took over, American grunge fans were left out in the cold – surely both could have co-existed?
Likewise a few years before that when Stock Aitken Waterman and American power ballad stadium bands had an iron-fist like grip on the charts, more discerning music fans were relegated to listening to radio at anti-social hours to get our fix of something with a bit more substance.
In many ways this was understandable – it made financial sense for record companies to invest most of their resources into a narrow range of bands who were relatively sure-fire hits at the time, whilst spending the bare minimum on tax-loss bands of other genres to hedge against a sudden change in fashion.
There were also relatively few media channels so it made sense to follow a “one-size fits all” formula during the hours when the audience numbers were largest.
Things have moved on – we now have hundreds of Radio and TV channels, and the industry is a shadow of its former self. Yet music programming, particularly on TV hasn’t moved on – in fact if anything it’s regressed.
Those of us of a certain age get misty eyed about shows such as The Old Grey Whistle Test, The Tube, The Chart Show, Famous for Fifteen Minutes, even Max Headroom before he turned into a chatshow host – because often we discovered bands via these shows that in some cases we are still listening to now.
Whilst Top Of The Pops was strictly bands from the daytime Radio 1 playlist / Top 40 miming along to their hits/hits to be, these shows had a broader music policy – the chart show in particular with their “Indie week” feature (back when Indie actually meant independent) you could see some completely unknown bands rubbing shoulders with the Madonna’s and George Michaels.
So what kind of music do we get on TV today?
Rolling video channels – playing a predictable, uninspiring selection of videos from a very narrow genre, be it “classic” (for people who think Van Morrison only wrote 2 songs) or current – based around the big sellers.
“Talent” Shows of the X Factor format – more about staged tittle-tattle between judges and performers backstories than music.
Festival coverage focussed on the big selling acts people will already know, with the odd token extremely obscure act performing in the “treehouse”.
T4 for young people more interested in what the bands are wearing than what they are playing.
Jools Holland – a round-up of offerings from the PR agencies with the biggest promotional budgets, accompanied by a bellowing circus ringmaster wannabe with a penchant for slipping in a bit of Boogie Woogie at every opportunity, in such a dull, sterile studio that even the bands you like seem bizarrely uninteresting.
Satellite and Cable promised to expand our horizons – to cater for groups not previously catered for due to the constraints of available broadcast hours. Yet whilst they make hit TV shows out of the most mundane things – Obsessive cleaners, hoarders, stranger’s dinner parties, stranger’s weddings, strangers buying or selling houses, and general people bitching about each other – anyone with more than a casual interest in music simply isn’t being catered for.
A multitude of TV channels of course creates a lot of competition and so the broadcasters become risk averse – reduced to putting very small twists on tried-and-tested formulas, such as taking “A place in the sun – home or away” but instead of looking for people who can’t decide between UK or Overseas, find people who can’t decide between Town or Country and create a new vehicle for Kirsty Alsop “Best of Both Worlds”. Not exactly a broadcasting revolution.
Whilst the commercial networks can justify playing it safe -this is exactly the reason the BBC is funded by a license fee. It allows them to can go out on a limb and try what may sound like a mad idea, but might just turn out to be a hit – without having to answer to shareholders.
Let’s take “Strictly” as an example – “Come Dancing” (as it was originally called) dates back to 1949 when ballroom dancing was presumably a mainstream interest. By the time it was cancelled in 1998 it was tucked away in the BBC2 schedules, watched by a literally dying audience.
So when it was proposed that they would revive it in 2004 as “Strictly” hosted by master of the catch-phrase, 70s game-show favourite Bruce Forsyth as a Prime-Time Saturday night show it sounded like a mad idea. Yet 10 years on it is still pulling in huge Saturday night audiences.
“Strictly” may not be to my taste, but I can recognise that broadening the horizons of a new generation who’ve found pleasure watching or perhaps even taking part in ballroom dancing when they’d likely never got into it otherwise, can only be a good thing culturally.
Hey, perhaps “Brucie” could host a hip new music show! I’ve already written his first catch-phrase – “It’s time to grasp the nettle – here’s some extreme death metal!”
Seriously though, there are obviously a lot of people who love X-Factor for one reason or another, but there are also a lot of us who hate it – and the main reasons often cited are the fact that it’s all covers, there are no existing bands – it’s all manufactured, too much focus on pantomime villain judges and backstories etc etc, and the whole thing just lacks any kind of credibility.
To my mind, the BBC should have taken on board all the criticisms aimed at X-Factor and produced a rival show for those not currently catered for by X-Factor. Indeed they could have gone out head-to-head, after all if the Blur Vs Oasis marketing trick was worthy of a mention on the national 9pm news – surely a battle of the talent shows could have been.
What do they do instead? Exactly what a commercial broadcaster would have done – buy in “The Voice” – a tried-and-tested format from overseas, allegedly at a cost of £22 million per series.We might as well abolish the BBC!
Though I would much rather that the BBC get back to their core purpose because most current TV seems to cater exclusively for gossipy old women (Soaps, including the low budget ones with amateur actors cynically marketed as “reality”) curtain twitching nosey parkers (Come Dine,
Location, Coach Trip), Peeping Toms (Dodgy holiday resorts uncovered, lurid documentaries posing as education, Big Brother…), Victorian freak show revivalists (Embarrassing Bodies, Hoarders, Feeders), not forgetting “I’m a (washed-up) celebrity (get me some low-grade daytime TV ads to pay the bills)” and of course right-wing tabloid readers (Benefits St, Big Fat Gypsy Wedding). Not exactly mind expanding stuff.
Opponents would probably say that there’s no demand for more music shows on TV. But were people crying out for a Saturday night karaoke contest? Or a revival of Opportunity Knocks / New Faces – yet X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent seem to do OK.
Perhaps instead of nostalgically re-running episodes of The Tube and The Whistle Test, perhaps they could try a revival? I heard last week about a show back in 2007 broadcast on T4 called Orange Unsigned– a sort of battle of the bands thing which seemingly didn’t go down very well. The fact that it’s a show I’d have definitely watched but I’ve only just heard about it 7 years after the event would point to the fact that perhaps it wasn’t very well promoted. Not having seen the show I can’t really comment any further.
Last year I started putting together compilations of clips from a diverse selection of local bands’ music videos called Xposure North West. When I put together the 1st edition I sent it out to everyone I knew for feedback. Of those that gave feedback, they all found at least a couple of bands they liked and would consider seeing live – the interesting thing was that they all chose different bands, and every band featured was favourited by at least one person.
This tells me that bands don’t have to be already famous for people to find them entertaining, and there is room for a more diverse range of bands to be given a platform.
But whilst Xposure North West can reach at best a few thousand people, TV has the power to reach people in their millions. After all, X-Factor can take a hitherto unknown performer, and practically guarantee Christmas #1 by performing a few covers on Saturday night television. As if to prove the point, once the X-Factor spotlight is gone, many fade back into obscurity.
The power of TV shouldn’t come as a surprise – after all companies spend millions of pounds on advertising products we are already familiar with on TV because they know they will typically get their money back in increased sales.
Whilst the Internet is brilliant for making music available, it’s still the traditional media, particularly TV and Radio that has the power to create demand for that music.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as newspapers have lost interest in stories of “Internet Sensations”, bands coming up “organically” through the internet that the phenomenon has all but died out. I don’t think I’m alone in having discovered The Arctic Monkeys not through the Internet phenomenon itself but from the traditional media’s coverage of the internet phenomenon.
Why does new music matter? John Peel allegedly once told his boss to think of him as Radio 1’s R&D department – whilst his audience size was relatively low compared with mainstream daytime shows, many of the acts played on those mainstream shows got their first radio plays on his show. After all,few bands start out playing stadiums – most start out playing the pubs and clubs and work their way up, and need support so that they don’t just give it up and get jobs as accountants.
Pulp for example were first played by John Peel in 1981 – but didn’t have their first mainstream hits until the mid-90s – in those days getting played by John Peel was sometimes enough to fill local venues. Would Jarvis Cocker have kept going if he’d been playing to the sound engineer at every gig?
We live in a strange age where celebrity is king, but you don’t have to do anything particularly notable to become a celebrity. If people aren’t interested in seeing bands until they become “celebrities” i.e. on the industry radar and getting regular airplay on the radio, then it’s going to be hard for bands to stay motivated when playing to empty venues, which ultimately means no new bands coming up at the more mainstream level. But put some unknown bands on TV and maybe, it will encourage people to look for talent rather than a familiar face.
You just need to look at music festival line-ups to see the lack of new bands coming through. When I first started going to Glastonbury in 2005 the top end of the bill was a good mix of older acts I’d never gotten around to see such as New Order and Elvis Costello, with newer bands such as The Killers who weren’t to my taste but were hugely popular seemingly overnight.
Have a look at recent line-ups though and you can see that it’s dominated by older acts, with newer acts generally much lower on the bill and on smaller stages. Many criticise the organisers, but when you stop and try and think of a new band with a big enough following to justify placing at the top of the bill it’s hard to think of anyone. It would be nice if they at least tried putting bands who are relatively unknown but good in higher slots, but I don’t think the audiences are ready for that yet.
For example my friend and I saw Gorillaz who had filled in for U2 who had cancelled at short notice. Neither of us were fans of Gorillaz nor indeed Damon Albarn for that matter, but we were won over on the night both by the performance itself and the procession of guest artists from Snoop Dogg to Mark E. Smith and Sean Ryder was decidedly impressive.
However we were in the minority – and several years later there are still people complaining on forums that they weren’t “special enough” for a headline slot. I think what they really meant was when they bragged to their friends that they saw the Gorillaz, they probably said “who?”.
But then, attitudes can change – in the 90s people laughed at me for drinking cider – citing it as a sweet drink for underage drinkers and west-country yokels. Fast forward a couple of years and the launch of Magner’s cider campaign – suddenly it was cool to be seen in a stylish bar with a bottle of cider on the table – the drink hadn’t changed but people’s perceptions of it had.
Could it once again be considered cool to attend local gigs of upcoming bands?
A TV show for example that showcased unsung bands from around the country and wasn’t hidden away in the schedules like the local radio BBC Introducing programs could do wonders for raising awareness that there are bands on your local music scene that you might just find entertaining – which would help increase attendance at grassroots gigs, thus helping the wider music scene in the long term. Whilst every band can’t be the next (Insert your favourite band here) a lot of them can still entertain, and the only thing wrong with a lot of underground gigs is the poor turnout, which makes it hard to create atmosphere. Bigger turnouts make bands raise their game.
Of course whilst I’m passionate about new music – it’s not the only area that’s being under represented on TV – for example I’m far from a heavy rock fan but Download is apparently the 2nd biggest festival in the UK after Glastonbury – are we really saying there’s no interest in a TV show featuring that kind of music?
As far as I can see things aren’t going to change any time soon, but as Paul Weller once said “You don’t need to sit back and relax, you can actually try changing things”.
As music fans if we want to see more diverse and interesting music programming on TV then there’s no point in just having a moan on Facebook, our only option is to pester the BBC en-masse until they take notice and agree to broadcast something more in line with what we want to see. If successful then commercial networks would take another look at music programming and could lead to some imaginative programs.
An uphill struggle perhaps, but then what’s the alternative? Another decade of X-Factor?
John King is the CEO and Co-founder of Xposure North West the Indie & Alternative music show viewable online: