In the last seven days Sony head-honcho Nick Gatfield admitted that his record company had become far too reliant on the production line that reality TV offered, when it came to his artistic roster.
There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed like the acts forged at the anvil of public opinion would be the only significant focus of the record industry. In December, 2003, the Top 40 back then still a seemingly relevant way of measuring musical success, contained the likes of Will Young, Gareth Gates, Lemar, Alex Parks and The Cheeky Girls from across the various strands of reality television.
It made sense; acts could be marketed, vetted and road-tested by the record-buying public before any label had to actually put their money behind one or more of them. Songs from the pre-existing back-catalogue were dusted off and handed to the new protégés, which not only gave the acts themselves a showcase for their vocal abilities, but acted as an in-built Radio2, gently nudging us towards the hits of yesteryear.
In Japan, AKB48 are a 90-strong manufactured group with a revolving recruitment policy and numerous spin-offs, that allow them to perform in several cities at once, have vote-ins and vote-outs, and release singles to compete with each other. In 2012, each of the 90 appeared in a different ad campaign in the same day. We’re amateurs by comparison.
When that works well, it is a masterstroke. Alexandra Burke’s 2008 version of Hallelujah was lapped up by fans of The X Factor, but drew derision from fans of Jeff Buckley, who started a campaign to get his version to Christmas number one. An even more fervent group of pedants pointed out that the song was actually written by Leonard Cohen, and so another group was formed; a musical People’s Front of Judea. Sony owned the rights to all three.
Manufacturing acts was nothing new. Bands from The Monkees, to The Supremes, to the Jackson Five, to the Sex Pistols, to Girls Aloud have been assembled by musical kingpins capable of putting a finger in the air of the musical winds and expertly judging what the times call for. These ways will, and should, go on forever, because they work.
Yet what Gatfield’s comments hint at is that we’ve been through a decade whereby the largest record labels have been unable to build the same stable of guaranteed successes as they once were. Regardless of the scale of the initial success, the lifespan of a reality television star, particularly in music, is only slightly longer than the protagonist in a country song.
Major labels are now finding that they are constantly looking for the sugar rush of a short-term pop career, where they may once have invested in a career that would pay them back many times over.
The 1970s, 80s and 90s were filled with huge major label success stories from acts that had been given time (and arguably more importantly) money to grow and find their audience. The results were the boom years of the industry. A quick look at the biggest selling albums of all time shows you just that.
Michael Jackson’s Thriller was his sixth release as a solo artist and sold some 60 million records. AC/DC’s Back in Black, a masterclass in how to repeatedly sell people the same song, was their sixth record. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was their eighth record, Bad was the follow-up to Thriller, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was their eleventh album, not to mention the numerous “Best Ofs” that wouldn’t be possible without an extensive back-catalogue. There aren’t the same number of artists, particularly on major labels, who would be given five or six years to gather an audience big enough to do that again.
Sony’s current “Featured Artists” section on its website hosts Alicia Keys, Karmin, Rebecca Ferguson, Dry the River, Ciara, Paloma Faith, Ke$ha, Labrinth and Rita Ora. Of those, only Alicia Keys would survive under-par sales of an album. People tend to get better at things as they do them more often. The record industry will understand that once again.
Living proof of this is the career of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, who are now in their fourth decade of a relationship with Mute records that has seen them release some 15 studio albums. While we aren’t talking tens of millions of units shifted here, it’s the perfect balance between creative and commercial ends.
Push the Sky Away sees a far more urban Cave than the dry wastelands his soundtrack work has been prowling. It’s an album that glows with neon lights and seedy details, and which seems to have far more in common with his novel The Death of Bunny Munro than with any of his previous solo albums. It’s a reimagining of Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam as his own adopted hometown of Brighton.
The main musical difference has been the promotion of violinist Warren Ellis to lieutenant, in place of long-time collaborator Mick Harvey. While Harvey’s guitar work couldn’t help but bring something deeply engrained in blues traditions, Ellis’ ghoulish strings add bombast and scale to Cave’s narrative, fleshing out some of the ideas he hinted at on The Dirty Three’s Toward the Low Sun. The four strings that drew blood.
Certainly there are some indications that Cave’s assorted forays into other creative fields have influenced this record. We Know Who UR features the kind of bleak electronic backdrop that suited The Road so well, while We Real Cool has some of Grinderman’s menace. Yet overall this is an entirely new direction from Cave. Yes, another one. And a career highlight at that.
Forged from similar stuff is the latest release from Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham), never a man to stay still, musically or in terms of collaborators. I’d like to figure out what release What the Brothers Sang is, but I only have a limited time on this earth. He releases a lot.
The latest musical clothing he’s sporting is a third collaboration with Dawn McCarthy, on a selection of the music of The Everly Brothers. Oldham’s vocals manage to make songs and arrangements created in the 1960s even more timeless, pulling out the bluegrass elements and stretching the timeline back to the 30s, as well as to the present day. It’s almost as if time were a necessary ingredient to the recording.