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 We’ve still got the vibes but lost the tribes.

Has the musical mainstream killed them off?

G D Sweeney



If you switched on your radio and set the dial to any of the mainstream stations, you might be inclined to think to yourself that every ‘new’ song has been manufactured to sound like last week’s no.1. Moreover, when you turn on your TV during primetime, you might even begin to believe that every warbling wannabe artist featured there – is cloned to look the same too.


When you make an art form into a commodity product, you will inevitably start to strip out the quirks and the kinks that made it so alluring in the first place, not unlike; the supermarket fruit and veg that must adhere to an exact size and shape before it is deemed suitable for our consumption. However, you can get a decidedly different picture about original music; when you step outside of your front door.


Having been out and about in London to watch some live music last week I witnessed the wondrous talent that is Martha Bean and her accompanying band.  There was a palpable sense of awe within the small but appreciative crowd that gathered to see her perform. As if, you could hear them wondering to themselves…’Why haven’t I heard of this artist before?’   As much as I revelled in the performance and her quirky and highly crafted musical style, I also felt a sense of despair; in the notion that her incredible gift might not reach a much larger audience that is truly worthy of her talents.


This is mainly through no fault of her own. It is more aligned with the shift in musical and cultural trends, to an increasingly bland and homogenous consumer-based world as presented by the media. The constant waves of mediocrity have pounded the masses into a feeling of sheer musical indifference. I am positive that there are artists out there who are secretly plotting their assault on the listening public with their own particular brand of music; hoping to ride the crest of some new wave or even place themselves ahead of the curve.


I know this because I host the Twickenham Songwriter’s Circle in London and I get to see originality firsthand.


Original and discerning talent does not stand in line to sign up for The X-Factor and the likes, and conform to a uniform sound and fashion. They play in darkened rooms and sing to an audience; that have often discovered them by chance. They sing in abstract concepts. They look different and many of them don’t really care about the mainstream.


Dare I suggest that it was a little more straightforward for musicians back in the day? There was a strong sense of musical identity from the 1950’s through to the 1980’s; which defined each genre. Characterising or identifying your ‘musical tribe’ has become all too difficult these days. The corporate blanding of the music business, to create a more palatable sound bite; has been like a mass cull for the vibrant cultural icons, that those of us who have been around for the past 40+ years, have come to recognize and love.


I feel that music has lost a lot of its traditional values and identity.  It was after all; the tribal and territorial associations that we attributed to musical genres – that evoked people into becoming: Mods, Rockers, Teddy Boys, Hippies, Goths, Punks, Folkies etc. It was the unwritten rules of fashion, attitudes, and behaviour that became their stylistic manifestos.  Folks wouldn’t just listen to music, but actually lived their life through every aspect of the cultural beliefs that stemmed from it. Modern music culture, in contrast, is starting to look like a North Korean military parade.


It was pointed out to me (by another music enthusiast) that if we looked at the music charts from the 1970’s, you would find a wide and varied spectrum of tastes and music on display. Glam Rock, Pop, Country, Punk, Euro-Pop and Folk were all represented in the music charts at the same time.  These genres all stood for something tangible and meaningful too.  As I look through the Official UK charts now, it is totally dominated by Pop and Dance and computer generated music.  It really doesn’t have the cultural and ideological belief systems that previous generations of music could boast of, indeed for many devote their life to.


It would almost appear that culture and music has been divided and conquered and subsequently replaced with the capitalist and consumerist model.  It has become like the flat-packed furniture of Ikea; sold back to us – pre-made, formulaic and ready to assemble in our own home, at our own convenience.  Our musical heritage has become fragmented and disparate; like the dissemination of old neighbourhoods in exchange for glass-fronted townhouses that people complain about.  We seem to have forgotten; who we were and what we used to believe in.


In light of this; how can talented folks; like those I feature monthly at The Songwriter’s Circle, hope to engage a nation that is conditioned on genetically-modified pop? The current music establishment is so busy, tracking consumer interest through algorithms that they have forgotten to actually hear and see what is being created right under their noses.


My own feeling is that we need to create more arts and music co-operatives around the country.

I’m not suggesting that we start musical anarchy on the streets (although I’d like to see how that might look?), but we need to unite as artists and establish ways in which real talent can be regularly discovered. We need also to see how they can be financially supported in the early stages of their craft, to allow them to develop their talent.  I was very intrigued by the ‘We Shall Overcome’ movement, where folks gathered together in their own towns and cities to perform music for charity.  If we could mobilise artists and create a proliferation of ‘songwriter nights’ – the tide of opinion and taste that affects our culture, might just start to change from within.


Perhaps you may have now have heard of Chris Stapleton – who recently won 3 Country Music Association Awards?  I was introduced to his music through my love of Bluegrass and Country.   UK artist Adele, is one many music stars for whom Stapleton has previously written songs.  What you may not be aware of, however, is that he had previously been shunned by many of the commercial country radio stations in USA.  His music was deemed too gritty and raw for their stations.  If it wasn’t for the massive support from his independent fan base over the years, the Country music establishment may not have paid heed to his talents or he might not be receiving the airtime now that his fans have passionately rallied for.


This proves that artists and music can change policy and perspective and go against the grain of the regimented music market through the power of ‘great songwriting’.  In musical terms, we need to ‘reclaim the streets’ and the musical territories that have all but banished through a process of ‘music market cleansing’.


We need to rediscover our identity and create the conditions again where people don’t just only listen to music like a disposable commodity, but feel so enthralled by it, that it becomes once more a way of life!


Other original and interesting artists that are worth checking out: – Martha Bean – The Kirkland Turn – Camilla Martins


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