Buster Stonham investigates why bands seem to be on the decline and argues that the music industry may be better off without them.
With rumours abounding this week about the imminent break up of Bloc Party, one of this generation’s most innovative and popular bands, lovers of popular music may ask whether the traditional rock band, as a creative force in music, is a thing of the past. The dispute that has seemingly torn Bloc Party apart has been over the band’s creative direction, with lead singer Kele Okereke pushing them down a more electronic path and eventually concentrating on his solo career. In recent years, many other high profile figures have pursued solo careers outside the bands that made them famous, including Julian Casablancas, Alex Turner and Thom Yorke. This sort of thing is nothing new and on its own does not signal the demise of the band as an entity, but there are signs elsewhere that solo artists are taking over.
Not only are big names such as these leaving their bands behind to explore their creativity, but more and more up and coming artists are cutting out the middleman and starting their careers as solo acts. One indicator of this is the BBC’s annual “Sound of” competition to promote the most promising new acts, which has been won by a solo artist for the past six years and out of this year’s shortlist of five acts only one was a band. Similarly, this year’s Mercury music prize, which was deservedly won by PJ Harvey, had a shortlist made up of 12 albums, nine of which were produced by solo artists. The only bands to receive a nomination were Metronomy, Everything Everything and 2009’s winners Elbow. Harvey’s winning album, Let England Shake, is a real exhibition of her outstanding song writing talent, so much so that many consider it her best work to date. This year’s shortlist may have been a one off, as stellar albums from the likes of Radiohead, The Horrors and Wild Beasts (below) were ignored by the Mercury panel, but the fact that bands are being increasingly overlooked by two of the industry’s most respected institutions that promote quality new music may suggest that the importance of bands is on the decline.
This trend has been affecting the music industry for some time, with the independent scene up until now seemingly immune. Commercially driven pop was one of the first genres to go down this route. Once dominated by electro pop outfits, manufactured boy and girl bands or stadium rock heavyweights, the album charts are now littered with X factor rejects, bland singer songwriters or R&B mega stars like Rihanna. If you look at this week’s top 20 albums only five are from bands, two of which are nostalgia driven re-entries for Nirvana and Pink Floyd, further indicating that bands may be a thing of the past. The world of Hip-Hop is no different. Gone are the days when Hip-Hop super groups like Wu Tang Clan, NWA and De La Soul ruled the planet. Instead their mega rich, big name successors, the likes of Jay-Z and P. Diddy, are just as likely to sell you a pair of designer trainers as their latest album. Even today’s most promising rap group Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All are overshadowed by the career of their charismatic front man Tyler The Creator.
Many explanations have been given for this trend, a number of which blame the growth of individualism and the preference within the music industry for solo performers who are considered to be more stable and easier for record labels to control. Celebrity culture has also been blamed, with people seemingly more interested in the personal lives of singers than their song writing ability. But the fact that this trend now appears to be affecting the independent music scene, which has traditionally rejected cut-throat business practices of the mainstream, suggests that other factors may be at work.
With the decline of bands, the development of quality music is now being led by a new generation of creative solo electronic artists, so if this really is the end of the band as we know it, then in all honesty, I feel fine.
The prevalence of solo artists as the growing creative force in music today is a bi-product of a rapidly changing independent industry fuelled by advances in technology and innovations in online distribution. In an age when an album can be produced using nothing more than an iPad, and at a fraction of the cost of making one in a studio, artists have at their disposal the tools to make music and distribute it online with previously unthinkable creative freedom.
The conventional path of forming a band, playing tiny venues for no money in the desperate hope of being spotted and picked up by a record label is now by no means the only option for aspiring musicians. Some of those who have found success pursuing a career under their own steam recently, whilst producing some of the most innovative and exciting new music include Burial, Jamie Woon and James Blake. Blake for instance built a dedicated following online before releasing his debut album, the hype this generated helped in bringing his brand of post dubstep to the attention of music critics everywhere, eventually earning him a nomination for this year’s Mercury Prize. The outcome of this trend, therefore, is the tapping of a new stream of creativity. With the decline of bands, the development of quality music is now being led by a new generation of creative solo electronic artists, so if this really is the end of the band as we know it, then in all honesty, I feel fine.