The UK press could be doing more to support new music
Every year, Music Twitter gets into the same, tiresome grump. Various talking heads raise the same issues. 1. Where are the new festival headliners? 2. Why is the BBC Sound Of poll so pants? 3. Why are we struggling to ‘break’ new acts through top ten records and sold out tours?
The short answers to all of the above — 1. Chvrches, The 1975 and Wolf Alice. Next! 2. Make your own poll. 3. Oh fucking hell, I don’t know — ask someone else.
In truth, there isn’t an easy answer to any of those questions. And the situation can often look fairly bleak for an industry that’s struggling to push its acts beyond a small-sized audience.
Turn to January, and there’s a traditional collective moan about the state of new music. People make a quick judgement on the current pool of hyped new acts, decide it’s not for them, and they move on.
I think there’s a bigger issue, though. Compared to a few years back, I don’t think the press, as a whole, is doing enough to support new music. I don’t just mean writing about the acts currently making waves. I mean building them from the ground up, following their every move, giving them a status (not making it up out of thin air, obviously) that can help build a fanbase.
And I might be saying this because I’ve had the privilege of editing a magazine’s new music section for almost four years. At DIY, there’s never been any pressure to pick artists with a certain standing. The Neu section supports acts that will eventually break through into the magazine’s news and features sections. That’s the only criteria — write about acts who can be supported for years to come. It helps if they’ve got something to say for themselves too, obviously. There’s narrative involved. It’s not simply a case of picking out a few hype bands and repeating the process every month.
It’d be foolish to expect every publication to reserve eight pages per month / week / whatever for new music. There’s such a thing as shouting about too much at once, which might go some way to explaining the waning influence of blogs who used to repeatedly claim ‘this is the best thing you’ve ever heard!!’. Enthusiasm is the best currency, but you can only hedge your bets on so many things at once.
But elsewhere — and I’m talking about big publications, not just a collective online voice — there’s little discussion about which acts are worth getting in a fuss over. Save for those buzzy thirty days when everyone’s still recovering from a post-Christmas lull. Even when the mag was plauged with criticism, NME’s Radar section was the authority for new music. Today it’s more slimmed-down. Weekly Under the Radar profile pieces are still on the money, but the rest of the work is done online with one-off premieres. There’s no real sense of a journey anymore — first seeing an act appear briefly in a sidebar before reading an interview six months on, or a cover feature once the debut comes out. Print still has an authority on these things. Online, the conversation is a lot more fragmented. One second you’ll be glued to a bedroom artist’s collection on Bandcamp. The next you’ll be flooded with hyperbole about a Scandipop sensation’s next chart banger. A few minutes after that, a Drake-approved R&B sensation will appear out of nowhere. This is great fun, but it’s also hard to know where to look, harder still to develop your own taste. When attention is so scattered and fleeting, one day’s biggest success story can soon become a faded memory. There needs to be some kind of narrative to contain the flood of new music hype, and that’s something print publications can easily provide.
The main reason I’m writing this: I believe that when the music press fails to provide a viable, passionate case for new acts, the bands who actually ‘break through’ can almost sneak in.
“If you like moany thinkpieces published on Medium, you’ll LOVE The Hunna!”
A group like The Hunna have capitalised on what’s going on today. They’re about to achieve a top twenty album with little to no press attention. Save for a tiny amount of blog support, they’ve become one of the year’s biggest breakthroughs without relying on old methods. Plenty of jokes are being made at their expense — about how virtually any ‘like’ on Facebook will lead to a The Hunna promotion — but their team have actually been very smart. They’ve invested everything in building a big audience quickly, and they’ve leapfrogged the press. By reaching numbers of 100k+ a year since forming, they’ve been able to take these stats to radio, who’ve reacted by giving them airplay. Now they’re an actual big band, the jammy pricks.
I’m not saying publications have a problem with new music. Far from it. Free music monthlies like Crack, Loud & Quiet, London in Stereo and DIY — magazines with a complete freedom for the acts they back — are giving covers to pre-debut acts. In the last year, the likes of Hinds, Abra, Rat Boy, Let’s Eat Grandma and Ho99o9 have been made coverstars before even releasing a full-length. The rock press is especially good at building bands up from sweaty venues to headline spots, giving them a cult status in the process. Online, Noisey and GRM Daily have led the conversation on grime’s heady rise, and blogs like Crack in the Road and Gold Flake Paint continue to carve interesting new niches.
In no parallel universe could you expect the Sunday Times Culture to take a punt on Pumarosa, giving them a four-page feature (oh go on!), but there’s a lot to say in how the former examples shape a conversation with new music. Others either react too late or they enjoy casting a cynical eye on what’s so hot right now. They provide few alternatives, and they’d prefer to chat about trance music in pastoral Bulgaria than producers on our doorstep. There’s space for both. Yes, there might not be a hunger to read about the latter. It might not generate hits. And I understand that few publications have the resources these days to cover everything in such rich detail. But we have a duty, in a way, to say what’s out there. Because there is an awful lot to get excited about, it just seems to be swimming under the radar all too often.