Oct 07

Long Live The UK Music Scene!

FT15 comments • 1,090 views

My latest column for Pitchfork looks at tastemaking and consensus in British music. It’s an ambitious column- almost certainly too ambitious, so I’ll use this post to briefly talk about some of the stuff that didn’t get in it and also reply to the criticisms I was making myself in my head while I wrote it.

But Radio 1 doesn’t just play rock and indie! Indeed it doesn’t – and there are a whole nest of other tastemakers it draws on – but what I’m suggesting is that it’s the rock and indie stuff, sourced by the NME down the previous step of the diffusion curve, that tends to be most successful in reaching the late-majority audience. (There do seem to be cycles in terms of which genres the mass market picks up on most, though, and the piece isn’t taking those into account.)

Aren’t the monopoly position of NME and the cred-ification of Radio 1 both basically late 90s phenoms? Why write about it now? Because stuff like the “God Save The Queen” fiasco and the Established 1967 CD were making me think on a macro level about how the UK scene was working. And I guess it takes a while for pieces to fall into place. (The big hole in my argument may well be the early 00s pop boom, when NME bands couldn’t get arrested, so I guess I’d have to give credit to Conor McNicholas for actually doing a pretty amazing job of focusing and promoting the NME brand – I didn’t realise before I started thinking about this piece how good he is at his job (which is TRAMPLING MUCH I HOLD DEAR so this is a grudging admission)).

What about TEH INTERNETS – aren’t they Changing Everything? Yes and no (also see the next para). The roil of activity on the web has definitely affected the diffusion curve but at the level before the NME – the Innovators rather than the Early Adopters. But actually the UK is a bit of a strange case – it doesn’t have much of an MP3 blogosphere to speak of, for instance – I’m not totally sure why this is.

But only 50,000 people read the NME any more! Well, more read the website by all accounts, but yeah – this is kind of why I referenced Fukuyama right at the end: his “end of history” wasn’t one, and nor is this – the NME’s position on the diffusion curve is INCREDIBLY vulnerable – it only has any credibility as a guardian of “youth culture” because i. people higher up the curve still want there to be a youth culture and for it to look quite similar to how it did when they were kids and ii. there’s nobody else. The locking-in of Radio 1 to the curve is probably irreversible, though.

Also – HI DERE Warren Ellis, thanks for the link!


  1. 1
    Ass Hat on 25 Oct 2007 #

    great piece. it’s interesting, in the context of your argument, to think about why the melody maker went under in the late 90s.

    since mm’s demise, nme’s been very canny at setting the rock agenda, and pitching itself halfway between serious journalism and teenage rag. but it’s had no real competition. in the late 90s, it was the maker that was going for the market you describe – putting ash on the cover every week, giving out freebies – while nme went off the rails trying to find the next britpop (stool-rock? new new romnatics? godspeed on the cover).

    i don’t know why mm went under, or how this affects the argument, but once it did, i think luck as well as judgement played their part, for the nme.

  2. 2
    Tom on 25 Oct 2007 #

    Well MM went under mostly cos it was selling half what NME was in a shrinking market and IPC presumably realised one title was all they needed!

    I argued on ILM at one point that MM went under because Britpop turned out to be the wrong horse to back – it drove off the audience they’d spent the best part of a decade building and Britpop fans just didn’t care much about a weekly press. This argument is generalising from my own experience a bit though.

    (The example NME need to avoid following is Select, not MM, tho)

  3. 3
    Andrew Farrell on 25 Oct 2007 #

    My question: what did Radio 1 sound like before?

  4. 4
    katstevens on 25 Oct 2007 #

    > But Radio 1 doesn’t just play rock and indie!

    They do play their fair share of dance/electronica in the evenings. However they have kind of ghetto-ed off hip-hop, grime & dub-step to 1Xtra.

  5. 5
    Marcello Carlin on 25 Oct 2007 #

    (Andrew xpost)

    Less like Smashy and Nicey than you’d imagine. Mostly mainstream Top 40/playlist fare (increasingly biased in the AoR direction, hence “I’d Rather Jack”) with added “quirks” (Our Tune, snooker on the radio etc.) largely designed to retain its original (1967) audience, particularly the housewife contingent. The style of presentation gravitated towards mundane pseudo-mid-Atlantic delivery rather than the “charidee” or “Clifftastic” stuff which no one on the station was actually doing by the turn of the nineties.

  6. 6
    katstevens on 25 Oct 2007 #

    > focusing and promoting the NME brand

    I think the live tours have had a lot to do with this – moving the focus away from London, especially.

  7. 7
    Tom on 25 Oct 2007 #

    Yeah the really telling contributor in the Garfield book is Nicky Campbell, who was (along with Goodier and Mayo I guess) 100% early 90s Radio 1 and simply could not see why the new management wanted him out.

    It is forgotten I think that DLT was an exception not a rule.

  8. 8

    one of the more complex revisionist pretzels established in the “critical consensus” between late 70s and early 90s re radio one — first championed by jule burchill i’m fairly sure — was that tony blackburn had (since radio caroline) consistently played better music than john peel: viz motown and soul (ie music loved by the working classes) rather than proto-indie (viz hippy-prog-punk-postpunk etc, which was all poshboy music acc.her)

    burchill always had a slightly demented loathing for peel, monstering him well beyond plausibility, and even she wasn’t arguing that blackburn’s in-between-song style wasn’t incredibly glutinous and annoying: she just said TB had a better ear than JP

  9. 9
    Marcello Carlin on 25 Oct 2007 #

    A different but parallel ear, perhaps; each probably needed the other to react against.

    Putting my day job hat on I note with glee that the gauge used to assess the difference in height of the patella pre- and post-knee surgery is known as the Blackburn-Peel ratio…

  10. 10
    . on 26 Oct 2007 #

    The main reason MM went under is that it was really aweful at what it did towards the end, going for the “Indie Smash Hits” style NME pedals now, but in a really cheap and nasty way. It’s a tedious format whether it’s done well or not anyway imo, but your average young indiehead seems to like the current version.

  11. 11
    Raw Patrick on 26 Oct 2007 #

    Popbitch claims this week that the NME will be going web only soon. The mag is like a pamphlet these days, not even enough reading for a bus journey.

  12. 12
    Matt DC on 26 Oct 2007 #

    I don’t think IPC can afford to do that – multi-format media brands (which is what the NME is now) tend to need a magazine to coalesce round, hub/spokes etc. Even if the magazine in question is a loss-leader* and serves as a glorified advert for the website/gigs/clubs.

    *I’m not sure this is true, surely the rigid demographic focus now in place means there’s a pretty well-defined readership which is attractive to advertisers?

    All of this means the overall editorial quality will carry on bubbling just over the bare minimum required to keep people reading.

  13. 13
    Tom on 26 Oct 2007 #

    Yes the much-vaunted TOTP brand hasn’t exactly thrived since the unprofitable hub died off.

    I tried to be careful in the piece – though I didn’t do a final check on it – not to refer to the NME as a magazine, or as anything really other than a brand.

  14. 14
    Pete on 26 Oct 2007 #

    Too early for the only recently killed TOTP brand to arise. I still think in the UK it is a formidable touchstone of POP, the question is no-one was defending it in its death, so no-one is going to jump up and say they were wrong this soon.

    Watch the resurgance of something called TOTP in three years time though.

  15. 15
    Marcello Carlin on 26 Oct 2007 #

    exclusive live performances from the hoosiers ahoy

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