published: 15 /
In his regular 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column Ben Howarth questions the worth and value of the much-hyped BBC Sound of 2014 newcomers' poll
Even as the ink was drying on the 2013 'Album of the Year' jamboree, the restless minds of the music critic class had already moved on.
You might have only unwrapped your copy of Arcade Fire's 'Reflektor' in your Christmas stocking, but our finest scribblers have already filed it away – not to be mentioned again until the next 'Greatest Albums of All Time' poll goes to press.
Does anything have a shorter attention span than the music industry? A week might be a long time in politics – but it has been two whole years since former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell swore at police officers, and still the 'Plebgate' scandal rolls on, still guaranteed lead billing on the evening news bulletins.
In pubs across the nation, climate change and the Iraq war remain perfectly acceptable conversation starters. Yet, both are so old hat they deserve a double disc reissue and bonus interview disc. Bring up music though, and you are on rockier ground. Haim were the name to drop only 12 months ago, but if you dared to say you were just getting into them now you'd be laughed out of the building.
The commentary around this year's BBC Sound of 2014 poll only went to show how short our memories had got. We were told, again and again, that bands are out and solo acts are in. Indeed, alongside three duos, twelve of the fifteen 'artists' on this year's list were solo acts. But, it was only a year ago that a band won the whole damned thing. Has the public taste really shifted so decisively, or are the tastemakers just fickle? The implication is that Haim wouldn't have even made the list if they were a year younger.
All that matters to the music industry elite is the next 'sound' to hype. Haim are the sound of yesterday. There are two sides of the fence to sit on – you might agree that this year's winner Sam Smith has an extraordinary voice, or you might be apoplectic that the Fat White Family didn't make the list. It doesn't really matter. As polarised as these positions might seem, they are in fact the same side of the argument: what matters is what's coming next.
The rest of us are left blinking in the corner, completely unable to keep up. I still haven't bothered to manufacture an opinion of Deafheaven, and now I'm bombarded with the fifteen BBC selections and, on top of that, the allegedly more deserving choices on everyone else's list. It's exhausting.
I remember when January was a quiet month. Film soundtracks and covers albums could expect prime position on the album reviews page of ‘NME’. If you were lucky, a prominent band might choose January to release the fourth or fifth single from their album. Nothing of real interest ever happened. That gave you plenty of time to catch on the records you'd missed from the year before – all now available on special offer.
That luxury no longer exists. The BBC Sound of... poll gets taken seriously because it usually does end up predicting the year's big sellers. The jury is still out on Haim (the album sold well, but the singles do not appear to have caught the public mood, but there is no arguing with older choices Ellie Goulding, Adele, Keane or 50 Cent. Even the Bravery had one hit).
This isn't because those polled have a unique ability to predict what people will like – it's because marketing budgets are set after the results are announced. Increasingly, the mainstream music industry is reverting to how it looked before the Beatles came along and changed everything. In the background, a select group of managers, producers and promoters make all the decisions that matter. Hell, the BBC Sound of 2014 Sam Smith has even borrowed his quiff from Billy Fury.
Unfortunately, despite the emphasis on 'sounds', only half of the 'A&R' brief is being followed. Finding 'artistes' is going well – the fifteen BBC tips for the top are all snappily tailored, daringly barbered and carefully biographied. All zing with potential star quality – journalists tasked with crafting profiles for Sunday supplements will find plenty to work with.
Alas, 'Repertoire' is proving more problematic. Modern pop music has got itself into a rut. The small cadre of producers who make most hit records are excessively in thrall to 'glitch' electronica – which means vocal lines uncomfortably hacked into pieces, ear-splitting bleeps and random jabs at the keyboard. For all the talk of innovative styles and unforgettable voices, it all sounds depressingly formulaic. These are not the songs that will soundtrack my year.
And here lies the nub of the issue. Amid the frenzied clamour to begin the 'big push' in January, the time and space that true creativity requires is lost. BANKS and Sam Smith have both released songs that won't stick in your head – perhaps later singles will. It's impossible to tell.
Bruce Springsteen's first two records only sold to his established New Jersey fanbase. George Martin didn't like 'Love Me Do', and didn't bother to promote it. The Smiths fluffed the recording of their first album. Blur quickly became a music industry in-joke after a poor debut album. Pulp had to wait a decade to be taken seriously.
The music industry's judgement has not got any better since.