Between A Rockstar And A Hard Place

Allow me one lazy analogy, one that I can meander around for a while, chew over, hold up to the light. One that will survive the odd mixed metaphor. The kind that would get pounced upon and torn to shreds in the comments section of the online Guardian but is fairly safe territory for shuffling digital diarists like me.

It begins in 1971. David Attenborough has just made a documentary film called A Blank On The Map. In it he joins an expedition struggling through a previously unexplored region in search of a hitherto uncontacted people. After several weeks the party encounters a small tribe who had never before had dealings with the outside world.

This is among the last recorded instances of “first contact” – the most famous twentieth century occurrence being in 1930 when the Leahy brothers penetrated the interior of Papua New Guinea in search of gold, then crossed all sorts of ethical lines with the inhabitants (photo of Mick Leahy is above, image courtesy Roderick Eime).

Whilst Attenborough was marveling at the similarities/differences between his own habits and those of a people living in a comparative cultural vacuum, a lot of interesting events had been happening in Western popular music. Over the previous decade bands like The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Pink Floyd had revolutionized the scope of the album as a format; recording techniques had become more experimental; power trios like Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience had turned the traditional concert on its head; incendiary live acts like The Who were about to make the jump into rock opera and offshore pirate radio stations like Radio Caroline had been reluctantly (though triumphantly) emulated by the stuffy establishment in the guise of BBC Radio 1. In terms of rock-mythology, the recently deceased Hendrix had just been all-but-canonized and Elvis was only a few years (and a few hundred hamburgers) behind him. Meanwhile the Summer of Love had been and gone and the unexpectedly high attendance of the Isle Of Wight Festival led to parliament passing a law that prevented gatherings of more than 5,000 people without a special license. On the business side of things, Island Records was demonstrating to the world that independent labels could be formidable contenders in the global market.

Most importantly of all: an entire generation of music consumers had grown up with the phenomenon of Rock Stars, becoming wise to the limited variations of their identikit assemblage and yet no less enthralled by each manifestation. People were growing familiar with the language of hype and the short-hand of celebrity.

Historically speaking I suppose it is at this point that the traditional recording industry dug in and became the entrenched groaning goliath we are familiar with today. From here on it would be prioritizing conservation of the riches it had already amassed as well as trying to recreate the past successes it had once stumbled upon by accident, peddling testosterone-fuelled pop-prophets that had skipped the step where musicians wore a suit and stood on awkward plinths behind Ed Sullivan and instead jumped straight to the sex and drugs bit.

Between then and now the business side of the major industry has done its best to weather threats from home taping, Punk and DIY, digital distribution, file-sharing and live streaming. One thing, however, has remained unshakable – the creative practitioners are never quite able to turn their backs on the idea that “Rock Star” is a credible career choice.

And this is where I get to my point.

The traditional record-selling model has run out of ideas, the major labels are no longer investing anywhere near as much in new talent, the pop process has been reduced to a game-show format and rockstars are now characters in video games. That is our world and there is no way of undoing what has been done.

Now think back to that Attenborough documentary, to those people in New Guinea that had for countless generations existed parallel to the warring and trading and artistic exchanging that has informed the developed world as we know it today.

Imagine if Attenborough had broken Star Trek’s prime directive of non interference and suggested to these people that it would be a good idea to discontinue their communal music sessions and instead separate off four or five members of the tribe (preferably young desirable adult men) and every few months hold an event in which said group performs an hour of music to the rest of the population in exchange for fifty percent of whatever each person in the audience had amassed in the way of tradable goods over the course of that week. Then, after a few months/years of this, suggest to that group that they play the same music but this time do it drunk and occasionally hurl abuse at the assembled villagers. And raise the price.

I don’t think it would be a success.

Why not? Because too many steps have been skipped. It would be all content and no context. What we have here is the orphan of a shadow of an idea. Modern rock and pop acts make no sense in isolation, they are dependent on the audience’s familiarity with (and endorsement of) celebrity culture, or the relatively modern concept of the troubled genius, or of rebellious youth and the vicarious thrill we are supposed to get from its figureheads. The audience are supposed to act as co-conspirators in a creative deception of colossal proportions.

Why am I saying all this? Because in four years time the babies that were born the year the RIAA sued Napster for encouraging music piracy, who had mobile phones when they were toddlers, who skipped the myspace hoohah and took their home-recordings straight to the no-frills functionality of bandcamp and soundcloud – those children who have grown up with the internet, who grasped earlier than any previous generation the concepts of identity and individuality within the framework of projected public personas – in four years they will be seeking (and creating) the soundtrack to their own sexual awakening and they won’t need any help from record labels to do so.

Meanwhile musicians of my generation will still be trying to emulate Jagger, Hendrix, Strummer, Morrissey, Gallagher (and whoever else we had on our t-shirts when we first started getting excited about music) and we’ll probably be getting some very baffled looks when we do so.

Of course, there will always be room for inspirational figures in our society just as there will always be room for entertainment (I hope). So much the better when the two roles are combined. But whilst such figures traditionally threw a mirror up to life and proclaimed an alternative, now the would-be trail-blazers are heading into a cultural cul-de-sac constructed from the blueprints of a recording industry that has now trundled beyond the realm of irrelevancy and headlong into fantasy.

I am not preaching revolution here. All I am saying is this: songwriters, musicians, performers – make your art mean something on some level other than the tepid fiction of the traditional rock and pop model. Don’t try to fit into an existing template, don’t worry about how many facebook fans or youtube hits you’ve got. Make the songs work on their own terms. Most importantly if you want to make a living out of your art, learn about the business, the different kinds of royalties, forge links with promoters and learn how they work. Take control of every single element of what you are trying to achieve before allocating certain (boring) areas to managers and agencies. Understand what it is you are selling and what it is you want.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am not advocating a strategy whereby emerging bands test their material in remote parts of New Guinea (although “trial by tribal focus group” would make an interesting press angle), I just think that, in our celebrity and image obsessed society, there is a worrying tendency to concentrate on the way things are packaged rather than what they are made of and how they fit in with everything else. There is a lazy symbolism running through rock and roll where there used to be energy and emotion, familiar touchstones that we leapfrog between without really knowing where we are heading – and why. Groups of guys with no life experiences stringing endless cliches together over borrowed blues hooks and refusing to smile in photographs. What is it for? What does it mean? Why is it relevant?

So, whether you believe in the importance of social commentary or protest songs or the avante-garde or making people dance or making people laugh or simply l‘art pour l’art, make your material work on its own terms rather than have it depend entirely on what went before. It doesn’t have to be original – look at Shakespeare, he borrowed all his plots from other sources but you can’t deny he had flair! – and it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to mean something. Rock & Roll doesn’t mean anything on its own.

FIRST PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2011

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