Band from the Mainstream
PHOTO CREDIT: @jmvillejo/Unsplash
Is Music Reserved for the Solo Artist?
THIS is something I have looked at…
from slightly different angles and in different guises. I am impressed by all the great new bands coming through right now but I look at the mainstream and most of the best albums around are being created by solo artists! Aside from some bold offerings from Parquet Courts, Arctic Monkeys; IDLES, Young Fathers and Shame…it seems most of the best music being made is from solo artists. Of course, you can toss other bands into the mix: Wolf Alice have just won the Mercury Prize and Hookworms are one of the best bands in the country. Throw in Superorganism and a few others and, well, there are enough there! The thing is, even if you take all those bands into mind…that still leaves the question: Why is there such an imbalance between solo artists and bands?! If you drew up a list of the top-twenty albums of 2018 so far I can bet you anything the majority of the records on that list would be from solo artists. I know much solo musicians have bands behind them but what has become of the four/five-piece that, even fairly recently, used to rule music?! I remember growing up in the 1990s and seeing nothing but groups on the radio. From Oasis and Pulp to Destiny’s Child and The Bluetones – the list could go on and on! There is a real disparity between the underground and the mainstream.
I get requests for interviews at the rate of knots and, whilst there is a gap in terms of the number of requests from solo acts and bands, the gulf is a lot narrower than it is in the mainstream! It seems like, on the boundaries, there are loads of bands ready to attack and campaign but there seems to be some sort of barrier. The last time I addressed this topic it was shocking to see how few great bands were ruling high in the market. I think the market has become more pronounced and, aside from your IDLES and Wolf Alice; can you really name a whole list of great bands who are making an impact?! It is not their fault at all but I wonder whether there is a barrier that is stopping newcomers getting their props – maybe there is that desire for the flexibility and focus of a solo artist?! Pop and Indie-Rock are, I feel, the most popular genres when it comes to the mainstream and the latter especially is moving from a once-band-dominated sea to one populated by solo artists. This is not a new development: two years ago, Consequence of Sound dedicated an article that aimed to answer the question…
“So, what happened? Glance through the arguments listed above, and you’ll find reasons that include everything from sales to style to sheer boredom. But there’s one underlying reason not too many people seem to be talking about: The downfall of the band as the centralized unit in rock music.
IN THIS PHOTO: Mitski/PHOTO CREDIT: Ebru Yildiz
“Just look at the most prominent and critically acclaimed artists releasing music in the genre today. What do Mitski, Angel Olsen, Bon Iver, and Car Seat Headrest all have in common? Aside from the fact that they’ve all released very strong indie rock albums in 2016, they’re all predominantly viewed as solo artists. This would seem to indicate a new trend. A growing number of artists in their 20s and 30s have opted to either strike out on their own or front “bands” in which the other members are less collaborators and more backing musicians. This is a far cry from what was going on during indie rock’s glory days of the mid-aughts, when full-fledged bands like Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, and The National were releasing albums hailed as modern classics”.
You might be confused by my concern: Who cares about the music so long as it is good and interesting, right?! From a consumer’s-eye-view; there is no real worry in the market right now but I, as a journalist, am acutely aware of all the great bands plugging away that are not getting their dues – struggling to break into the market that is heavily dominated by solo acts. This Guardian article, reacting to the BBC naming their ‘Sound of…’ list in 2014, looked at why so many award shows and newcomer lists are dominated by the solo artist:
“…Interestingly, 12 of the 15 shortlisted are solo artists, while the other three are duos. There are as many Brit School graduates as there are actual bands: one apiece. And even then that one band – Royal Blood – are a two-piece. Of course, duos can be bands, but the BBC news themselves have been swift to report that "bands are out of fashion".
IN THIS IMAGE: The longlist for the BBC ‘Sound of…2018’/IMAGE CREDIT: BBC
Maybe the awakening and prevalence of eager and deep-hitting bands such as IDLES are making a mark and maybe that is the answer – bands need to evolve with the times and not repeat what has come before. There are exceptions to the rules but a lot of the most-popular bands of the moment are mixing gritty and exciting compositions with lyrics that are much more intriguing and intelligent than you’d imagine. Maybe the best bands have always been smart and captivating but I find, in order to shine today, bands need to up their game and deliver something with real potency, substance and memorability. Alongside that comes the sound. Once was the time when Indie-Rock and Pop bands ruled the land. I have mentioned my upbringing and who I heard played but maybe a sense of boredom and predictability has come through. Punk, Rock and Alternative are still burning but there are opportunities out there. I believe there is a documentary/album reissue coming regarding the Traveling Wilburys. The details are a bit sketchy at the moment but the supergroup – Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Rob Orbison – define what a ‘supergroup’ is all about. I love their music and how accessible it is; how there were no egos in the ranks and, were it not for the untimely death of Orbison before they recorded a second album, how long they could have lasted.
IN THIS PHOTO: Traveling Wilburys/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press
There are some great solo musicians out there, old and new, and I wonder whether the idea of a supergroup has died? I would love to see some big names get together and see what they can come up with. The last true supergroup I saw out there was Them Crooked Vultures – Dave Grohl, Josh Homme and John Paul Jones – but they have not released any material since their debut album, Them Crooked Vultures, back in 2009! One might argue there isn’t the talent alive today to constitute a genuinely great supergroup but I disagree. I want to end the piece by looking at considerations such as sound malleability, political and social factors in addition to current trends – which can explain why bands are struggling to find the same appreciation as solo artists. Whilst Wolf Alice’s Mercury win is good to see, it is an aberration that is not been mirrored at music award ceremonies, ‘best of the year’ lists and polls like that of the BBC. Whilst politically and socially-aware bands like IDLES and Shame are striking; raw, inventive and engaging groups elsewhere are claiming glory; it seems like one other once-popular core is missing from the band market: the girl group. Maybe that term seems somewhat reductive, sexist or archaic given the times in which we live. However you would label these groups – taking gender out of it would prove unwise – my point is that these bands/groups/coalitions/etc.
Perhaps, again, it is a sign of the times. To me, girl groups represented the very finest, most exciting and sassy music around. I followed groups like Bananarama and The Bangles in the 1980s and, during the 1990s peak, we had Destiny’s Child (who reigned into the 2000s), En Vogue; the Spice Girls and TLC among those owning the charts and delivering incredibly powerful music. At a time when feminism and sexism are on everyone’s minds; it appears now is a great year to welcome in a new breed of girl groups. Are those words restricting movement in the market – not sure whether they will be reduced to gender or diminished in some way?! I think there are a few girl groups around like Little Mix and Four of Diamonds but, again, genre comes through. Most of those groups I just mentioned played in the R&B/Pop realm. Perhaps the Pop group seems like a naff and unappealing proposition given the fact most of the best bands around are performing in other genres. I used to love listening to a new album by Destiny’s Child or En Vogue and was captivated by the harmonies, incredible strength of the songs and how catchy they were. There was that argument regarding the Spice Girls and All Saints – who was best and the finest of the Brits – and we can all name some true anthems by those iconic girl groups. Look back even further and you have Gladys Knight & the Pips and Diana Ross and the Supremes who can be seen as the godmothers of the genre. So, then…where have all the girl groups gone?! I have found a few articles that ask the same question and have their theories. This one, from 2014, takes up the baton:
“In this new age where technology dominates and artists become stars courtesy of Vine, Instagram and YouTube, it’s hard to miss that there are no reigning girl groups around. The industry has become saturated with solo artists all producing the same sound and looking the exact same, and the industry is also littered with failed reunion attempt after failed reunion attempt from folks who still can’t seem to get along. What’s changed?
In this new scope of music, it seems like the outlook is pretty grim. Can there be another TLC? Can there be another girl group with an impact thanks to songs that detail a little bit of everything, including the struggle of battling depression, calls for unity and even safe sex? With plenty of social injustices in the world, there is certainly a void for women to fill”.
PHOTO CREDIT: @dchuck/Unsplash
Forbes looked at the issue a couple of years ago and explored geographical aspects:
“The last time there were girl groups on the charts with any consistency was around ten years ago, when the Pussycat Dolls and Danity Kane both made it big and were able to secure several top ten hits and albums. Sadly, the members of these collectives haven’t been able to make it on their own, with lead Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger being the best-known of the bunch, even though most of her solo musical output has flopped here in the States…
While the U.S. has experienced a dearth of vocal groups fronted by women as of late, other parts of the world have been doing just fine, so perhaps this is just an American problem. The U.K., in particular, has always had an affinity girl groups, and while there aren’t as many that are active at the moment as in the past, there are, at all times, enough to keep fans of the style interested”.
There are some powerful and inspiring female artists out there but, by and large, they are solo acts. There are enough male bands out there so it is a bit confusing. Do we consider any band that consists of women as ‘girl groups’? There are bands with women in them but you cannot call them girl groups – that term projects a certain mood, genre and sensation. There are parts of the world where girl bands are surviving and growing – Asia, especially – but the U.S. and U.K. charts have a severe surfeit.
FADER, in a more up-to-date article, have brought the million-dollar questions back:
“Over the past 20 years, girl power has subsided in favor of a more individualistic pop feminism. The posse has lost its power, and the female executive has risen in its place. Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In philosophy informs mainstream imaginings of the woman in a man's world; Wonder Woman only becomes a superhero once she leaves her Sapphic utopia to fight alongside men; and immensely powerful female singers command historic numbers on the Billboard charts, if sporadically.
Whether there is room for the girl group in the contemporary neoliberal imagination remains to be seen. Non-male bands command attention in more niche genres such as indie rock, where groups like Camp Cope and Cayetana challenge the patriarchal vision of the rock stage as a male domain. The sound of female camaraderie remains a powerful one for certain audiences, yet it remains a challenge for groups of women to attain mainstream sway. If girl groups are to see a resurgence, they’ll have to prove to the market what we already know to be true: female friendship is worth looking at”.
I, for one, would like to see more girl groups around and feel there is a definite appetite and gap. Whether political and social boundaries mean that type of group is sexist and outdated has yet to be established. I feel, given the political state of the world and how much sexism still exists, we could foster some great girl groups who could deliver some big messages. I love the fact we have empowered and exceptional solo female artists but I do long for those heady days when we sang along to the great girl groups and had that diversity.
IN THIS PHOTO: Oasis/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Whereas social class is not such a huge issue when it comes to solo artists and girl groups; traditional bands, before, were usually working-class. That may be overly-simplistic but the big boys/girls of the 1990s and early-2000s were definitely coming from a more humble and working-class background. Noel Gallagher, back in 2015, looked around music and noticed how few working-class bands there were. NME reported it at the time:
“He’s now calling on labels to provide more support to new bands.
Speaking during an appearance on BBC Four’s ‘What Ever Happened To Rock ‘N’ Roll?’, which airs this evening (July 23), he says: ”In theory the internet and YouTube should be helping new bands get off the ground but it hasn’t – it’s got worse. The record labels just aren’t interested in working-class bands any more.
”[Rock’n’roll is not dead] as long as I’m still going, it’s fucking not. It’s there but it’s certainly lacking the re-generation process.
”Since the Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian, Razorlight and The Libertines there has been nothing. You name me one band since them. So that’s 10 years ago. So the evidence is that it is kind of in hibernation”.
Again…in the same way the 1990s produced these world-class girl groups; there were these big working-class bands who were delivering anthems that united the world and have, as such, survived the decades. I have mentioned a few bands already but look at most of the groups out there and how many can you claim is working-class?! A lot of the bands I get requests from are working-class but I find they are struggling to get the same focus as middle-class bands and solo artists. Is the music industry interested in the working-class and have they turned their backs on bands altogether?! There is a clear problem and one can argue a lack of quality means solo artists are taking a lead – I do not feel bands lack ambition but times have changed and we need to start opening the market up.
IN THIS PHOTO: Kacey Musgraves (who has produced one of this year’s best albums, Golden Hour)/PHOTO CREDIT: Billboard
I admit that there is a wealth of great solo talent and some truly remarkable albums have been produced this year. I am not suggesting we limit their role and voice but it seems the music industry is much more accommodating towards solo artists. Maybe the closing of so many venues means bands have nowhere to cut their teeth – there are a lot of smaller venues around that can cater a solo act or duo – but it is an interesting argument. I feel, so long as music is good and evolving, then we should not be alarmed but I would hate to think that, decades from now, all the best bands that come to mind are those from way back. How many new bands from the last decade can you rank alongside those we grew up with and idolised?! Maybe I am just growing old and need to shift with the times but I feel the industry needs to hold its hands up (in blame) and we should ask why few great bands are being heralded in the mainstream. Maybe politics, class and genre plays a part but quality might be lacking; perhaps we are a bit bored of bands and solo artists have great opportunity to fuse genres, resonate on a personal level and have more artistic freedom. Whatever the reason behind this years-long trend – that seems more emphatic and worrying now – discussion and productive investigation needs to happen to reverse the endangerment. The few wonderful bands that are showing their might do not have great backing and, when it comes to music awards and the artists being tipped, there is that favouring of solo acts. I do not want to live through times when bands are seen as obsolete and inferior – that is not true and I know plenty of unsigned groups who have the promise and potential to last for years. I feel everything should be done so these great groups - whether they are Pop, Rock or Folk-based – get more focus and are not seen as a product…
OF the past.