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Has music died? If not, where are the new decent pop tunes?

8 June 2013

9:00 AM

8 June 2013

9:00 AM

I am suffering, as we all do from time to time, from a shortage of decent new tunes. Of course, ‘suffering’ may be a slight exaggeration here. Very little physical pain has been involved. But research has shown that music obsessives need a constant upgrade of their personal tunebanks in order to perform at full capacity. It’s all very well going back and playing the Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue at top volume and singing along to every vocal harmony, as I might have done once or twice this past week, but a long-term solution it is not.

It’s where to find these new tunes that has become the problem. I try radio station after radio station, and then I try them all again in a different order. Radio 1 has set its stall out to harvest the young of the species, with an amiably constant 4–4 bump of dance tunes, all of which sound the same as each other. It’s so undignified, as a middle-aged listener, to hear yourself saying that music was so much better when you were young, but really.

Radio 2, as I have frequently complained, has regressed to gerontophilia, and is playing more oldies than ever, presumably for the oldies who long since turned over to Radio 4. The digital station 6Music, a fine idea in theory, remains in thrall to indie guitar rock, 95 per cent of which leaves me completely cold, as it always did. Someone should probably maintain the Soviet-like cultural purity of the NME in about 1981, but ideally it should be a museum, not one of the handful of national music radio stations. All the commercial stations are as bad as each other: they play for us what they think we want to hear, which is what we have already heard millions of times before and never want to hear again.

The other day, then, I ran into the music journalist Mark Ellen at a party, and had a good moan to him. Ellen is impossibly tall — roughly 1.7 delingpoles in height — and has to stoop to listen to people ranting, but that’s his own fault for having started so many fine magazines. Smash Hits was his, as was Q, followed by Mojo, and most recently Word, which shut last summer, to the wailing and gnashing of teeth of a few thousand men like me in their forties and fifties. Ranging as widely as any magazine could across the musical landscape, Word also had a
cover-mounted CD each month, which introduced me and others to many wonderful acts.

Thanks to Word, I now have several fine Decemberists and Elbow albums and my children believe that the first Duckworth-Lewis Method album is the greatest record ever made. (There’s a new one out in July! We’re all ludicrously excited.) But that source has now dried up, and Ellen admitted that even he doesn’t know what new records to listen to any more. Working on the magazine was clearly every bit as useful in this regard as reading it.

For a long time I thought this was just my problem, but now I’m not so sure. Time and again I meet people who say they used to buy a lot of music but they don’t any more because they don’t know what to buy. It’s ludicrous that an industry that was once so effective, often to the point of criminality, has so lost its way. But then it was the British music industry, or remnants thereof, that came up with the idea of Bonnie Tyler representing us in the Eurovision Song Contest, with the feeblest, most dated power ballad since last year’s. At least our singer this year didn’t actually need to be dug up, but it was a small advance. It was, though, unable or unwilling to work out what people might like, so the panel of experts compromised and chose a song no one would like, of any country, of any age. Last week we heard that the British share of the world music market has been slowly but inexorably falling for years. Who can be surprised?

There are good new songs out there somewhere: we all know that. But hunting them down on Spotify or YouTube feels more like work than play. Tunes should find us, not the other way round. So I’m waiting. I can be amazingly patient when I put my mind to it. ‘You gotta slow down (slow down), sweet talkin’ woman.

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