Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Rebirth of the Single ?

Gnarls Barkley's ‘Crazy’ topped the single charts on the strength of download only sales. The physical formats of the single only hit the shelves once the track has hit the top spot. It has been argued in some quarters that this signals the end of the single. This is plainly idiot speak. The reality is surely the other way round; this is the start of a new golden era for the single.
The growing success of downloads makes access to the charts much easier for unsigned bands. Who needs a record company to package and market your product when you can do it all yourself. It strips away the costs of mastering and pressing up CD's, the hassle of finding a distributor.
The means of production are now firmly in the hands of those making the music. It’s the punk ideal in reality. For all its DIY rhetoric the two standard bearers of punk, The Sex Pistols and The Clash both signed to major labels. They were co-opted into the machine and became marketed rebellion. Now bands can really control the whole process. Karl Marx inside Windows XP. Bands subverting the capitalist system, using technological progress to seize control.
We could be harking back to a period of time pre-Beatles when the single was king. The art of the perfect single reborn; no longer relegated to a subservient role of an advert to promote the money spinning LP. Now the single can become a beautifully executed piece of work in its own right again. The new DIY ascetic could shatter the stifling Dad Rock/Cheesy Pop orthodoxy that currently seems to dominate both the charts and mainstream media. Six Music with its tag line of 'Closer to the music that matters.' Is a prime example of why Gnarls Barkley's success is so welcome.
The 'that matters' bit that pisses me off. Matters to whom? The sanctified tastemakers of 6 Music? Their listeners? It confers certain smugness, an elitist musical snobbery that’s sad. Oh get your head out of your arse please. We’re not still in school are we? Where the ‘cool’ kids listen to music that the chavs don't get. Now that attitude can be excused in the heady flush of youth. When you are still groping around in the dark for your sense of identity, music can be a powerful tool to define your self-image. Surely that mentality, like drinking snake bite and religious buying of the NME its something you grow out of.
Don’t get me wrong, I do listen to 6 Music and even enjoy it sometimes. It’s a guilty pleasure though and leaves the same sort of awkward feeling you get from laughing at fat people or seeing someone fall over in the street. Why? Well because it peddles soft focus indie nostalgia. I love the Pixies and hearing them blare out of the radio as I have my morning coffee can be a thrill but the reality is that this is 2006 and maybe something new wouldn’t go a miss.
The daytime play list at 6 Music conforms to a very straight and uniform idea of kind of music ‘matters’. This is just a random section copied and pasted from Vic McGlynn’s daytime show last week:

Richard Ashcroft - Music Is Power (14:44)
The Auteurs - Lenny Valentino (14:48)
Ron Sexsmith - Former Glory (14:52)
Belle & Sebastian - The Blues Are Still Blue (14:59)
Jonathan Richman / Modern Lovers - Roadrunner (Once) (15:05)
Coldcut / Roots Manuva - True Skool (15:09)
The Icicle Works - Evangeline. (15:12)
The Cure - Catch (15:17)
The Avalanches - Frontier Psychiatrist (15:33)
Jose Gonzalez - Crosses (15:37)
The Knife - We Share Our Mother's Health (15:42)
Franz Ferdinand - The Fallen (15:48)
The Manic Street Preachers - Slash And Burn (15:50)

In over an hours worth of music only the harsh blue electronics of Knife and the cut and copy magpie instincts of Coldcut deviate from what is basically a guitar led, indie circa 80-90 view of music. There is nothing there to jolt or inspire, nothing to incite or annoy. It plays safer than Chelsea with a 1-0 lead.
Those selections imply that for music to ‘matter’ it needs to have guitars, a male vocalist and ‘mean it man’. Guitars = depth. Oh really.
So The Cure's ‘Catch’ has a deeper message than Eminem’s ‘Mosh’? Richard Ashcroft's hollow blustering music has more worth than American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson? I don’t hear it. It’s such a reductive and luddite way to program a music station. I’ve always been amazed by old school Goth’s disdain of heavy metal. Goth is just metal with pretensions as art. Christ, it’s the same music, Goth is metal for posh kids in the A stream. All you need to do is Swap metal themes of goblins, girls and denim for Goethe, Dracula and eyeliner. The problem is these kids have grown up to run radio stations, work in A&R and edit the monthly music magazines. It's a shame then that their attitude to music hasn’t evolved beyond the school gates.
The preaching to the converted allows everyone to coast, it stifles progress. The mythical £50 man can spend his dosh on re-issues of CD’s that he already owns and on new artists that sit comfortable within the boundaries of what he already knows and likes. Franz Ferdinand are simply a Showaddywaddy or Shakin Steven’s for the post punk generation. They are peddling a facsimile of the past as some kind of modernism. For pink zoot suits and brothel creepers read stripy t-shirts and skinny fit jackets. The same cocktail just mixed in new way.
The new Massive Attack collection is a tragic example of believing that guitars bestow gravitas. They once produced music full of soul, blended reggae with hip-hop and a blistering sense of time and place. As the core of the group fragmented and 3D gained creative control the guitars arrived and magic departed along with the beats. They became a below average guitar band when they had once been forging a whole new future for British music.
With the rise of Myspace and digital downloads the revolution could be just the beginning. The smug elitist tastemakers in radio stations, A&R departments and those glossy monthly magazines should wake up. This really could be the start of something.

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