Everyone likes to hear their own music. It’s a fact. I don’t mean music you’ve made, although I have no doubt that I would be even more egoistic about the fruits of my creative labours, I refer to the contents of your iPod.
Sound is a funny thing. Of all the senses, they say that smell is the most powerful, but in my mind there is no external force more likely to alter your mood than your choice of music. It can make you happy or sad in an instant. Christ, from time to time I’ve even felt my body temperature change as a result of it (although I am prepared to give in to science and admit this may have been a perception). But anyhow, with regard to music, generally we know what we want.
It is into this pit of preconceptions that the modern musician is flung in their attempt to achieve success. That’s what makes it so easy for the likes of Simon Cowell to make money. Cowell is not a musician, he has not written a song in his life (I can’t be bothered to research this, and as such leave myself wide open to ridicule when proved wrong), but he IS a hugely intelligent man who understands the system and the demographics of the music-buying public. A far more interesting form of the X Factor would be to have a split screen between the auditions and his face. You must practically be able to see the cogs whirring…
BING! Jazz singer voice. Can market him as new Jamie Cullum and flog to housewives in build-up to Christmas. KER-CHING! 200,000 album sales.
BING! Good legs, slutty dress. Almost underage. Can bang her on auto-tune, give her a racy music video and sell two hit singles to teenage boys and aspiring prostitutes before chucking her. KER-CHING! 100,000 singles sold. Will be doing Big Brother, then soft porn within 2 years.
BING! Can play guitar and has mad notions of singing his own songs. Talented, but not malleable enough, sorry mate I’m going to go with Jedward and Chico this time.
Everyone knows artists are a bit precious, so it’s a much safer bet to go with a gifted karaoke singer and give them a bunch of covers to sing. Considerably easier to man-manage and none of the creative “issues” or tantrums to deal with.
The X Factor is a microcosm of the endemic problems facing the music industry as a whole. The audience knows what it wants. The record industry knows what the audience want. The world keeps spinning. Rarely a day goes by when a new band isn’t touted the “New Oasis” or something similar, as the labels try to pitch their new product to an existing market. But success is a fickle mistress and scenes and tastes are, like Naomi Campbell on a plane, susceptible to violent swings. You have to achieve an awful lot of success before you can count on any form of brand loyalty, while on the whole, once you’ve had your moment in the sun, you’re stuffed.
Kula Shaker are a good example here. They enjoyed early success as they rode the Britpop wave, buoyed by songs like Hey Dude and Govinda. Yet they faded at the turn of the millennium. The public had had enough of them. Years later, in 2010, they released easily their most accomplished album to date. Pilgrim’s Progress was an absolute masterpiece of 60’s psychedelia. Had a new band released this as their debut, they would undoubtedly have been hailed as the “new Coral” and praised to the high heavens. As it was, the record snuck out, received no airplay and hardly touched the charts, despite immensely positive (if concealed) reviews. The powers that be had decided that Kula Shaker had had their chance, and they had blown it. Game over.
And that really is the problem with music. It’s far too ‘cool’. People only like to champion the next big thing, and once that artist or scene has ‘made it’, they are left to sink or swim on their own. More often than not it is the former. Here are some interesting facts about bands on the wane:
The Kaiser Chiefs’ debut album Employment has sold 2m copies. The follow-up, Yours Truly, Angry Mob, sold 800,000, third album Off With Their Heads just 200,000. All three albums sounded more-or-less the same, had equally good reviews and boasted a huge hit single (I predict a riot, Ruby and Never miss a beat respectively), yet sales went down by 55%, then an additional 75% from release to release. The band remain an outstanding and popular live act, so how can this be explained?
In 2008, the first album by Glasvegas went platinum (300,000 sales) in theUK, with NME backing them as the best thing since sliced bread. The follow up was given 9/10 by the same magazine a few years later, but sold only 30,000 copies. Colombia Records dropped them within weeks of its release. MGMT and the Klaxons are other bands who have recently seen sales figures of their second albums drop 90% from platinum debuts, in spite of generally positive reviews.
In fact, I’d almost go as far as to suggest that there is no link between the reviews for an album and the success of it. Internet music review site Pitchfork recently showed the sales figures for it’s top 50 rated albums of the year, the results are as interesting as they are arbitrary. So just how do you succeed?
Each one of Coldplay’s five albums have sold more than the last, they are nearly a complete anomaly in this regard. Until the relative failure of their last album, Kings of Leon also fell into this category. Both bands have been accused of commercialising their output over time, although it would take a brave man to deny that they have retained their quality. Is “selling out” the only route to longevity?
The likes of U2, REM (until they split last year) and Radiohead have reached a level where a certain number of people are going to buy their next release, regardless of any of the aforementioned factors. It would be interesting to see how a mediocre Coldplay album would sell, to see if they have made it to this level. The last Kings of Leon album was thoroughly average, yet still sold 2m copies, proving that they are not far from obtaining this security.
The final case study is that of Blur. Interesting mainly because they became so huge, and yet they so nearly perished. After debut album Leisure had put them in the picture, the follow-up Modern Life is Rubbish absolutely bombed. This depressingly common “second album syndrome” is usually enough to finish off most bands, but Blur pulled through. Girls and Boys fired into the top 5 singles and third album Parklife, which could so easily have been a lost gem, took off. The rest, as they say, is history.
So how does a band achieve sustained success? If I knew the answer to that question, I’d be writing this from a large yacht in the Bahamas. My suspicion is that there is no answer, but a spattering of quality mixed with a dose of hype and a shit-load of good fortune seems as good-a-recipe as any.
by Harry Harland