I have just been asked to take part in a radio debate about that most contentious sector of the music industry: The Battle Of The Bands.
Is “sector” too weak a term? Perhaps I should say sub-species? But surely if I say species could I not then stretch to parasite? Or mutant off-shoot? Or precocious weed? Dear oh dear, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Needless to say, I will be speaking on the side of AGAINST.
At the risk of making my argument available to the opposition a week before we go on air I’d like to use this article as a quiet place to gather my thoughts. I’ve never taken part in a battle of the bands myself but I do have rather strong feelings on the subject. There are plenty of necessary evils partnered with a career in the arts but this phenomenon is not one of them. It is a needless irritant.
Most of the negative aspects of the music industry are the ones you find in all industries – greed, complacency, entrenchment – but the one feature I would say is unique to the entertainment business is the merciless trade in Hope. In this business, hope is the most powerful currency circulating at entry level: young aspirants are willing to give away an awful lot in exchange for very little. Actually, I’m wrong, the hope-trade isn’t peculiar to the arts, you’ll also find it in pornography, prostitution and people trafficking. The difference is that the latter doesn’t have Simon Cowell selling tickets. Yet.
But so what? C’est la guerre. After all, the stakes are high because potentially there is a lot to win. Only now of course the map is being redrawn to the extent that no one quite knows how much the pay-outs will be. In fact, they are likely to be pretty meagre. Adam Smith would have considerable trouble dreaming up a helpful analogy for this kind of economics. I know I do.
Traditionally a Battle of the Bands will pit a number of similar groups against each other and then, after a lot of tedious voting, one will be crowned the king of music. Genre-wise it will typically be one of the basic minerals – somewhere between rock and metal.
You’ll all be familiar with the stories of how luminaries including The Doors, The Band, The Kinks and The Clash were all signed to major recording contracts as a result of being spotted at their local Battle Of The Bands competition. After all, as legends go it’s the music industry equivalent of Arthur and Excalibur.
Okay, I admit that is complete nonsense. But the acceptance of this as an obviously preposterous notion is the very reason why I began this piece by labeling the phenomenon as an off-shoot – it isn’t growing in the same direction as the main organism, it is merely an associate. Sometimes even a harmful one.
So allow me to state in no uncertain terms that I consider the Battle Of The Bands to be a mischievous and sycophantic doppelganger of our fetid live industry – an abandoned petri dish where all of music’s most trivial and tawdry nuclei are free to germinate.
The problem is that we all know a lot about Rock & Roll as a product but very little about it as a practice. For most things there is a clear procedure, something to get you started, a ziggurat to surmount step by step. But all that guides us through the labyrinth of Rock & Roll is a chaotic bunch of deified egos that inexplicably got lucky. It is not necessarily the best singers or best musicians that make a name for themselves (usually far from it. I appreciate, for example, why John Peel’s favourite song was “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones, but I’d find it very difficult to explain its merits in an academic thesis). It is therefore not surprising that those who attempt to “make it” in the music industry are easily seduced by what they see as the end product before there is even so much as a statement of intent.
As a musician and manager, I believe it takes at least one year to work out what kind of band you are in. Realistically it is closer to two. If you are the Beatles you lark about in Hamburg and get your hair cut, if you are the Stones you play a bunch of covers from the Chess Records back-catalogue, if you are Fleetwood Mac you lose two frontmen to two separate cults… then you start getting somewhere. A lot of bands simply do not leave themselves enough room to make the right kind of mistakes. After all, if four die-hard Kooks fans write a bunch of songs then three months later get offered a six figure album advance I’d wager the same amount that they’ll never do much to expand the creative gene pool.
Half a century of ruthlessly archived Rock-Lore, coupled with a floundering record industry that neither understands how to process the supply or interpret the demand, has created something of a power vacuum at the lower and intermediary levels of the live industry. And so comes the vanity gig phenomenon, ready for any band who wants to ride the Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster, spitting its mediocrity over all the best venues in town at the expense of the would-be artists who have been led to believe that this is the first rung on a glittering showbiz ladder.
But there are complications. The old promise of a crowd peppered with A&R men simply does not wash with the myspace generation. A different bait is required for a well-attended midweek gig: the traditional Battle Of The Bands, a story first told to us by American teen films of the late eighties and nineties featuring musicians at the peak of their abilities (but still brimming with potential) proudly setting their wares before a sparkling auditorium packed with enthusiastic and impartial revelers. The reality? Pay your sign up fee and make sure all your (paying) fans attend because otherwise there will be no one there to influence the judging panel by cheering loudly or – worse still – actually vote for you.
What I object to is not the exploitation of naive expectation – after all, that happens at every level and it’s probably worth getting used to – it is more the way these events seem to be geared specifically at those who are just starting out, not as a welcome relief from dire dive-bar gigs but as a first experience of public performance. It looks like a great offer, an opportunity to side-step all those exhausting free shows and open mics, that endless trudge from one independent band night to another. It is, of course, just a fantasy.
I do not wish to appear overly outraged. After all, Battles of the Bands are pretty low down on the list of musical miscreants. There is, however, a part of me that harbors a very real sense of unease about the whole business. I worry that these interventions in an emerging performers’ development are damaging to their perception of live music. Not only that, I suspect it can warp their understanding (for a while at least) of the live industry as a whole and, worst of all, perpetuate the idea that everyone on the UK live circuit is in some way auditioning to be the next Bono. Surely such competitions ultimately make one feel cheap? No one should underestimate the importance of dignity in these matters. I’ve known many people who have spent too long chasing a version of themselves that only makes sense on a big stage in front of a safe audience. It takes years to construct that sort of personal mythology and if you’re going to follow that route, it is best to do so away from the meddling witch-doctors who dangle free studio time in front of you. Everyone has their price but you don’t want people like that to know what yours is.
I also think we need to spare a thought for what the future may hold. The internet was once deemed a formidable weapon in the arsenal of independent music but is now being used more and more as a tool for pitting bands against each other (without them even setting foot on a stage). Now there’s no venue to book, no technical crew to pay, no posters to put up, just money to be bled. There are online services in which you can vote for a band (at a price) to edge up the popularity ladder and secure some dubious record deal plus a percentage of the wealth amassed by all the other ignorant hopefuls and their devoted followers. It is a depressing thing to witness. Artists should not be playing these sordid X-Factor games at any level, it is so far beneath the nobility of even our most basic creative impulses. Those that propagate such policy should not only be regarded with utter disdain but convicted of high treason against the human imagination.
I’m not suggesting that everyone involved in these rackets is a villain out to pervert the course of art. Competition between groups of people is something that our society has always valued highly. Supposing that a bunch of musicians competing for a prize will somehow lead to a break down in the integrity of live music is like saying a game of football in the park will cause all grass to wither. Battle Of The Bands competitions are commercial enterprises designed to profit the promoters and those businesses they are in partnership with. That is not to say, however, these events cannot be enjoyed on a number of levels (it is certainly exhilarating to play in front of large audiences in professional venues). It is, however, destructive when these pleasure cruises are perceived as portals into the music industry (snaking towards a version of musical success that simply does not exist anymore) – such a conceit not only fosters an erroneous belief in easy short-cuts, but a misplaced and habitual rivalry between performers who would benefit far more by supporting one another.
The authors and promoters of this scene are well versed in the semi-formalized cod-religion of young musical ambition. They understand its texts, its hymns, its vestments and its idols and, if you’ll permit me to stretch the metaphor further, these people essentially make their money by peddling dubious holy relics like the corrupt priests and pardoners of the dark ages. If Buddy Holly ever comes back I hope he casts them all out of the temple.
FIRST PUBLISHED JANUARY 2011