published: 27 /
Ben Howarth in his ‘Condemned to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ column questions whether the plans to cut 6 Music is entirely without merit.
Generally there might be said to be an underlying current to this column - and that is me, standing glassy eyed in HMV, desperately searching for something that is going to keep my peculiar tastes away from my dad’s old vinyl for one more month, and yet left entirely perplexed by the music all those strange people with very tight, very old jeans and very expensive messy haircuts are buying.
And yet, regular visitors to this space may have noticed that, occasionally, things veer off into another direction. For, somewhere out there in the internet, there lurks another version of the author of this column, one who receives his monthly envelope in return for helping a leeching multinational provide political briefings to various public bodies, charities and trade associations. Occasionally, these two creatures -who like to pretend they don’t know each other - wind up writing their respective columns in the later hours, and find that they only have enough material if they use the same raw stuff for both their endeavours.
In the past, such joint work has yielded fruitful ‘Condemned’ columns on David Cameron, the future of the record shop and the profit margins of EMI. And, while my modesty hat floats gently away in the wind, I can generally say that I know as well as anyone how ‘public policy’ in the digital media sphere lies. If you want to know what Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw thinks about such and such, or what his Lib Dem counterparty Dom Foster feels about whatnot, then I am - as disgraced former Transport Minister Stephen Byers would say - a cab for hire.
And yet, I wasn’t expecting to need any of my other life for this month’s 'Condemned'. Indeed, I even had some notes readied for a piece on ‘shrinkers’ (you’ve heard of ‘growers’, right? ‘Forever Changes’, ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Marquee Moon’ and so on and so forth. Well, what about the opposite? Seemingly great albums that quickly get worse and worse - for me, the White Stripes are the prime example, but there are lots more). And then, BBC Director General Mark Thompson decided to scrap BBC 6 Music and everything changed.
You can’t help thinking about politics when something like this happens. One minute, the BBC were enthusiastically backing the expansion of digital radio (there is a national target to switch over entirely to DAB by 2015, don’tcha know?) and signing up Britpop luminaries like Jarvis Cocker and Cerys Matthews for DAB’s indie/alternative strand. Then, with the thrifty Conservatives five points up in the polls and time running out on the high spending Labour administration, Mr Thompson decides that this station is an ideal sacrificial lamb, shielding his own pet projects from the chop.
My initial reaction mirrored those for which you will have signed petitions in support. From the BBC’s perspective, this was an idiotic, short sighted decision, which has shaved off another layer of skin from the rapidly thinning onion that could be held up to justify its funding through a regressive tax regime (you pay the same for the BBC license fee whether you take home £600,000 a year, like Mark Thompson, or less than £60 a week, like a pensioner on the average state pension).
And yet, after I’d left the pub, and after the drink had stopped talking with my voice, I started to think that I wasn’t quite so opposed to BBC6 Music closing after all.
It started when I got my weekly mail-out from those fine people behind the Luminaire (London‘s best music venue), in which they advertised the now-obligatory 6 Music petition. But, they also admitted that they didn’t listen to the station themselves, as they were too busy listening to CDs and their own gigs. They aren’t alone. Listening figures for 6 Music are less than healthy. For every 20 music fans that claim to listen to it, there are perhaps as many as 2 that really do.
The Luminaire folk made the seemingly reasonable point that 6 Music provided valuable exposure for commercially unfriendly music, thus keeping their lovely little venue open to the public. But, while I do attend the Luminaire regularly enough not to un-subscribe from their weekly mail-out, I listen to 6 Music only on the rarest occasions.
Why should we rely so much on Cocker, Matthews and Lauren Laverne to give a leg up to new bands? Its out here, in the real world of mid-price PAs and bottled Newcastle Brown Ale that the budding music fan earns his spurs, and the budding musician earns his 4 star 'Uncut' reviews. Cocker and Matthews have it all too easy. If their audience doesn’t like what’s on offer, they switch off and nobody notices. If the audience at the Luminaire doesn’t like it, they can either start throwing their bottles of ale at the stage, or - at the very least - stop buying it and go home.
The sad thing about the hand wringing over 6 Music is that it places credit in the hands of the wrong people. I suppose Jarvis Cocker is being reasonably brave by playing music on the radio that isn’t very well known, when he could probably have a light comedy show on an FM station if he asked for it, but he has plenty to go back to go if it doesn’t work - and by ‘plenty’, I mean plenty of money, earned from being in one of the best selling bands of the mid-90s. Jarvis, no doubt, has in eye of the column inches and spin-off compilation albums enjoyed by Bob Dylan’s 'Theme Time Radio Hour', but he will surely cope if 6 Music did close. In fact, I expect he’d quickly find a job offer from XFM in his letter box.
When did Jarvis last have to ring up a band to tell them that he had to cancel their gig because it hadn’t sold a single ticket? Or watch in horror while his audience left in disgust as his support act found misplaced humour in outright racism? When did his band last have to snip three songs out of their set because the soundman nipped out for a cigarette a mere thirty seconds before he was meant to be in his booth switching on the mics? (I should note, for reasons not unrelated to a desire to avoid a libel action, that none of these things necessarily actually happened in the Luminaire. At least, not while I was there.)
That’s not to say that the case against closing 6 Music is entirely without merit. Its just that is an argument about the nature of public service broadcasting, the extent to which art is validated by the size of its audience, the extent to which the BBC should be allowed to dominate the market, the extent to which culture needs the helping hand of the state to thrive and the best way to spend public money. But, the people who make the music, and the people who like to listen to it, don’t factor quite so high in the debate as the handsomely paid 'Guardian' columnist’s dislike of the handsomely paid Mark Thompson.
So this is where the writer of political reports and the music reviewer really do part company. My political brain instinctively says that the BBC have been short sighted and foolish. But, my musical brain is reminded of all those people who panicked when 'Melody Maker' closed down a decade ago, seeing the decline in traditional music journalism as evidence that new music was doomed and it was punk revivals or nothing from here on in. They were wrong. The last decade brought more new albums of quality than we’d ever had before, and many many more than we’d ever have had the money to buy or the time to listen to.
Just as no one has really missed 'Melody Maker', I sincerely doubt that there is a single band whose music is going to get worse because it won’t be played on 6 Music.