It’s all been happening in the pop world since I was last here. David Bowie released a new song, arguably his best in several decades. Wilko Johnson announced that he had terminal cancer, and a lot of men in their fifties wept for their own lost youth. HMV went belly up, and I ripped my £5 HMV voucher into shreds, hours before they decided they would honour the damn things after all. Is it my imagination, or have prices for CDs risen ever so slightly on Amazon these past few weeks? For them, I suppose, the job is done, and monopolistic practices can now creep in and grab hold of the market by the throat.
A music lawyer I know is very pessimistic about the future of recorded music, not least because if there is no more money to be made, she won’t be making any either. She thinks that young people won’t start bands any more, that music will simply contract for a while. I’m not so sure. Making huge piles of cash is only one reason young people become musicians. Having sex with other young people is an important one, and avoiding proper work is another. It will take more than harsh economic circumstances to negate the squalid glamour of the musician’s sordid existence. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the harsh economic circumstances didn’t actually encourage more young people to start bands. It’s not as though they have anything else to do.
There is little doubt, though, that the music business could do with a kick up the arse. My ten-year-old has been lobbying fiercely for the purchase of Now 83, the latest CD in the long-running series that collects recent chart-bothering singles. There’s never any arguing with the chart: it’s what people buy, and it’s what record companies release in the hope that that’s what people will buy. But dear, oh dear, what a weary listen it is. There’s a great review of it on Amazon, by a man who bought it for his seven-year-old’s birthday party, mainly because it had ‘Gangnam Style’ on it. Otherwise, ‘every single song sounds exactly the same as every other song to me, with the exception of Elbow and (I can’t quite believe I’m saying this) Robbie Williams. Same sounds, same tempo, same four chords, same featured artists, same, same, same, samey samey same.’
As a reasoned analysis of current chart pop, I’m not sure this could be improved upon. If the market is going to contract, the first thing it could usefully do away with is most of the top 40.
Where the industry has been failing, consistently and (one has to say) a bit pathetically, is in its ability to launch new acts that last. Mumford & Sons (although I can’t bear them) have the look of a band who will be around for a while; Muse have done well; Elbow are already on the verge of national treasure status; but there have been too many acts like The Feeling and Scissor Sisters and Mika, who emerge apparently fully formed, sell loads of records in a short space of time but then fail to build on that start because, it turns out, those were the only ideas they were ever going to have. And yet huge numbers of new records are still being recorded and released, most of them independently and each of them hoping to secure a small corner of the market that they can nurture over time. We, the listeners, can become overwhelmed by this profusion. And we, the subset of slightly older listeners, go back and listen to our Dr Feelgood records, or try and fail to buy tickets for the Kraftwerk concerts, or preorder the Bowie album because we want to listen to it on the very first day it’s available. Old music, or new music by old people, becomes the simpler option.
As it is, both Bowie and Wilko have surprised and moved us as rock musicians rarely do. One still has to marvel at the sheer chutzpah of Bowie recording an album over the best part of two years without anyone finding out. Wilko, meanwhile, has responded to his diagnosis with considerable dignity and a sudden sharp awareness that life is to be relished. None of this would mean anything if it weren’t for great and much-loved records these men made well over 30 years ago. These are the sort of people the music business needs. Does it know where to find them, and is it even looking?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 9 February 2013