“Pop long since ate itself, and this is what came out the other end.”
Yes, I wish I wrote that. This snazzy little sentence was published on TheGuardian.com, via the U.K. paper’s music blog. On top of being very hilarious, and a little bit gross, the statement is also a reference to the just-announced “BBC Sound of 2014,” a list of “artists to watch for” in the coming year.
The Guardian writer’s gripe? That 12 of the top 15 artists on the “Sound of 2014” list are solo acts; the other three are duos. The subtext here, duly noted by the Guardian writer, suggests that bands – which we’ll define here as groups of human beings playing instruments, singing and manipulating technology in real time – have fallen out of favor.
Well, boohoo. Go ahead, cry, and get it out of your system. For, as newsy and depressing as this sounds, it isn’t actually news. The past decade has seen a major industry shift away from the band concept, and toward the “single superstar” blueprint. Why? Well, though the public seems eager to lap up a lot of this prefabricated pop-icon nonsense, in point of fact, what they’re doing isn’t so much voting in favor of their personal taste, as falling in line with what the music industry as a whole has mapped out for them.
The reason is a simple one, but no less nefarious for that fact. And it all comes down to ... wait for it ... yes, money. Major labels are no longer interested in backing bands – groups of individuals who like to eat while they’re on the road, require money for equipment and tour support, and most offensive of all, need time to create meaningful art. Often, bands take a while to build an audience. Their first album or two might not sell all that amazingly well. They require investment.
Individual superstars, by contrast, are more pliable. They want superstardom, and are willing to play ball in order to get it. Many of those who fit this slightly generalized pop star model are able to go on the road with either a DJ or a collection of backing tracks. The bands and dancer entourages come later, after Pop Star X has made tons of money for all involved, and paying for a band has become a drop in the proverbial bucket.
It’s pretty much that simple – solo stars are far less expensive to churn out than successful bands.
Simultaneous with this solidification of the music industry’s “anti-band” stance is the fact that bands are having an incredibly difficult time of it these days, due to the mildly inconvenient reality that listeners are stealing their music, rather than paying for it. Internet sharing, and the paltry royalties being paid out by streaming sites, have put bands up against the wall.
We can trace this bummer of a perfect anti-band storm, as we can trace most things that are lame and embarrassing about modern popular music, back to Simon Cowell and his like. “X Factor,” “American Idol” and even “The Voice” have glorified and venerated the cult of the individual pop personality. Singing in tune and looking good on TV has become analogous to an NBA dunking contest – you slam the most balls through the hoop while looking awesome in your line of overpriced sneakers, and you win the prize. Of course, music and professional sports should not have much in common. But it is this idea of “winning a talent contest” that started the rot that has now fully set in. And we can thank the Cowells of the world for this little gift.
The BBC list is stuffed full of pop stars in waiting that most of us on this side of the pond haven’t heard of yet, but if all goes according to plan, we will be falling in love with them by the time spring rolls around. Interestingly, more concrete support for the idea that bands have fallen out of favor comes via Spotify’s publishing last week of its top 10 most streamed tracks of 2013. Of the 10, there are only two that qualify as bands – Imagine Dragons and the Lumineers. The rest are solo acts or duos, and most of them are artists whose work has been created on a laptop computer.
For bands, things look a bit bleak at present. Time to get real, then. And while getting real, you also might want to consider getting a day job. Or making the full commitment to a life on the road, because touring and merchandise sales at concerts are the only chance you have of making a living.