Who killed Bambi?
Gal détourN puts 'the great rock'n'roll dwindle' in perspective
Music no longer plays the role in young people's lives that it used to. Alan McGee, head of Creation Records, claims 'there is a crisis in the music industry and it's so huge that nobody knows it's happening'. The NME referred to this 'crisis' as 'The great rock'n'roll dwindle', and numer- ous 'indie' stalwarts rushed to join the lament.
They blame bands for being too careerist, the industry for killing off non-star sellers too quickly, a range of consumer choices for stealing potential music devotees, and even childless baby boomers for not producing enough of the little buggers in the first place. But the music industry is not dying. Industry figures reveal a relatively healthy home market and strong exports of British artists, making it still one of the highest-earning industries in the country. So why the angst?
Indie; alternative; underground; 'authentic'. Call it what you want. It is a stiffening corpse. The kind of music that Alan McGee grew up on and the NME has made a large part of its living from. The kind of music that angst-ridden sixth formers, students and rebel clotheshorses of all descriptions actually believed in, while sneering at the 'straights' for not embracing its truth. That kind of music has lost its spark and is disappearing. Cancelled festivals, poor indie sales, Warner's closing of Radar - a label intended for bands outside of the mainstream - as well as changes at Liverpool's Crash FM, and London's Xfm, and the sharp decline in sales of NME and Melody Maker, all attest to the fact.
Gone are the days of music 'movements' like punk or mod. There are still 'freaks' around but they are mainstream now, clowns rather than folk devils, who can buy their hair dye from Boots instead of waiting for it to arrive in plain wrapping. Some music journalists have tried to recreate the movements they just missed out on; but the 'new wave of new wave', 'new wave of new mod' and, worst of all, 'Romo', all floundered due to their inability to appeal to the mainstream.
The fact is that the mainstream is expanding while the grassroots music scene has become a stagnant talent pool, from which the major record labels can fish out the odd wet corpse for high street consumption.
The top 20 albums of the year so far give a snapshot of the musical landscape. Girl groups, boy groups, adult balladeers and lightweight pop sit next to more 'credible' bands like Radiohead, The Verve and Massive Attack. It's always been the way: okay sits next to dull sits next to duller. The only difference now is that the underbelly is disappearing; this is why record companies give huge advances to bands and expect quick returns - they are pitching artists in at a much higher level, knowing that mainstream pop is where the real money lies. The Verve's Urban Hymns has sold over two million in Britain. Indie acts who are lucky enough to be saved from that endless array of near-empty gigs in dodgy toilets which constitutes Britain's grassroots scene have a lot to live up to. Rebellion is no longer a big hit, and underground is just another word for loser.
There may be fewer young people and more consumer options, but why do young people choose not to identify with outsider or underground music? The lack of ideological contestation in society means that even the atomised sixth-form rebellion of yesterday's pop movements no longer has instant identity appeal. Guitar-mangling, tinnitus-inducing, manifesto-wielding young upstarts seeking to rip a hole in the backside of contemporary culture are more likely to be seen as a joke by today's career-centred conformist students.
In its vague rejection of mainstream society, rebellious music reacted to the world that surrounded it by rejecting its 'straightness'. But when politics is reduced to administration and the establishment no longer cares if you have green hair and a pierced penis, rebel rock has little left to say. Even rap - a once-feisty beast - now has little to say about anything other than cars and women. Fair enough, but Chuck Berry got there in the 1950s. Today, the only whiffs of top ten 'sedition' we have - and those quotation marks are extremely important - are the cartoon sing-a-longs of Chumbawamba and the tits and vomit capers of Prodigy.
So where does this lead us? If we no longer require music to speak to us about our lives and our world, then all we are left with is sound. Without ideas, there is only shopping. There has been a closure of the imagination that can only be reversed when our cultural and political life is more antagonistic, dirty, dynamic, irreverent and intelligent. This, and not industry practices, the internet, demographic factors or other such fallacies, is the real point of concern.
However, we should not assume that a crowd of rebel rockers coming to save us would be anything to celebrate. Alternative music was rarely positive in the first place. It made a virtue out of shabbiness, celebrating individualism and victimhood at the expense of being an aspirational intellectual force. It perpetuated the 'idea of youth' as a separate lifestyle category, which meant that any rebellion could easily be presented as merely part of the eternal revolt of youth that recurs with each generation. We should be looking for more positive outlets for expression. Continual cultural change is healthy if we are not to live our lives by stone tablets; inevitably though, some people do cling to their vested interests and their nostalgia, very, very tightly.
But they shouldn't worry too much. The prevailing mood of caution and unease makes both nostalgia and sentimentality very marketable mainstream commodities. This ensures that traces of the 'real' deal, of a time when things were different, continue. A minority of bands will always be used for this purpose. The next Radiohead are probably unburdening themselves to three men and a dog in Camden right now. They too are probably consumed by a doom-laden, pre-millennial, angst-ridden concentration on the survival of their music. Somebody should tell them that the real issue is that if cultural shifts reflect wider society, then our society seems more passive, unopinionated and privatised than ever before - and it'll take more than a few distorted three-chord tricks to change it. That's the real dwindle.
Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999