Friday, January 18, 2013

What we talk about when we talk about 'guitar bands are coming back'

Predictions made at the start of a year in music are prone to wavering fortunes. Sometimes it's due to the benefit of hindsight - yes, Lady Gaga was only number six in the BBC Sound Of 2009, but all we had to go on was some facepainted promo shots and Just Dance, nobody knew what stylistic leaps she had ahead and winner Little Boots was everyone's idea of a characterful pop wizard to come until the label made a mess of her following releases. More recently it seems the idea of such lists as self-fulfilling prophecy has been greeted by a cussed public with a "we'll see about that". Sound Of 2012 champion Michael Kiwanuka had a decent run, top five album and Mercury nomination, but his name didn't figure come the end of year reviews.

Discourse around the music to come in 2013 has seemingly centred on one sentence - "guitar bands are coming back". Radio 1 head of music George Ergatoudis told Music Week "the public appetite for guitar bands is definitely building back up" in November, after Kiss FM's Andy Roberts had told the same trade journal "we're probably waiting for guitars to come back..We're due guitars but I think they'll be a fusion of something (radio stations) will all be able to play." Which sounds like Fun and Maroon 5, but never mind.

But what do we mean by that? Guitars never went away, of course - it's not like big pop acts are taking over festival headline slots, the Vaccines play the O2 in May, a new saviour is promoted at almost every turn. We keep being told that 'live music', a term by which producers and DJs are notable for their unstated absence, is booming.

In such context such statements feel a bit more like wish fulfilment - this year's Sound Of top five contained no guitar bands (unless you count Haim, and if we're calling Haim the alternative it's probably time to all pack up and go home). No, what they mean is sales, and specifically the singles chart. No matter that the decline in singles chart positions of indie acts is allied to the rise of download culture and immediate release, anathema to the large sector of indieland that still believes primarily in physical stock and slow builds - Jake Bugg's singles chart peak is 28, the Vaccines 32, Beady Eye 31, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds 15, Mumford & Sons 12. Even just idle curiosity would have lifted Alt-J above 75 a few years ago. That the sector also had a bad year album sales-wise - none in the end of year top 30 - may have been a catalyst, but it's one heading in the opposite direction to logic. The idea that the singles chart - while at all other times derided as unrepresentative, of course - is the be all and end all and Cowell and Guettapop are somehow the only things that are popular is a hangover from Britpop, where records were nakedly pitched into the commercial core with aggressively marketed store discounts and multiple formats. That doesn't, and can't, happen any more because the market changed and, like dear HMV, guitar bands seem not to have noticed.

The ultimate question is, is there much evidence that the public are going along with this sea change, or is it still the same core market? They don't seem to be falling over each other to raise Libertines-knockoffs-local-support-band-who-once-heard-Glasvegas-made-good Palma Violets to the level the NME so wants them to reach, while everyone else given the big push these last couple of months - Peace, Swim Deep, Temples - sound like areas we've already long past carved up. And, of course, that's what's worked well the last couple of times Guitars Came Back. Meanwhile the track downloaders still cling to their rave-pop, their boy bands, their pretend-dubstep and their X Factor runners up because it's what they know and what the current set-up of the mass music media, such as it exists, is naturally pushed towards - Capital and Heart, two stations that couldn't care less about the way the hip wind is blowing are steadily gaining listeners. Britpop felt like a sea change because in 1995-96 it still felt like an outsider's genre, whereas more recently it's felt like a volcanic tremor that's attempting to push up from the middle because Liam Gallagher said something once and, well, all these guitar bands are the same. Maybe that's why parties like Ergatoudis, who would have grown up on Britpop's imagined cultural legacy and the always underlying blokeishness of the radio format, are so keen to push the message - it's not so much a new dawn as a new marketing opportunity.

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