Why did the Music Stop? The Grim State of British Music

When looking at the current state of British music and its surrounding culture, it seems increasingly awful. The risks faced by the music industry are more prominent now than they have ever been before. To cover both all the current risks and the underlying reasons for the decline of British music I’ll be looking at these two matters in terms of cultural and pragmatic issues. The cultural issues are the root cause of the wider problems faced by British music such as lack of ambition and the general stagnation in new developments. The pragmatic issues are definitely tied in to the cultural but explaining them separately will hopefully indicate how the two are intertwined, which will then in turn highlight how fucked we really are. These issues include far more tangible factors such as lack of funding, obstacles of obtaining a visa for tours as a result of Brexit and, of course, the difficulties introduced by COVID-19.

The UK has never been short on great music in the past, with an arts industry that has seen the rise of some of the world’s most iconic bands and musicians for decades. From the colonial afterglow of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the rhinestone wonderland of Bowie and Queen, the melancholic realism of The Cure and Joy Division, and finally the laddish mania of Oasis and The Arctic Monkeys, it is fair to say that British music has been its most impressive output since the mid 20th century. In the absence of colonies and any mighty empire, music and arts have given the people something to be proud of. Often, a sense of British identity is rooted in music and the subcultures of previous decades.

In a divided Britain that is no longer host to such subcultures it can be tempting to look to the music and scenes of years long gone. It seems to be standard to think that these times were simpler, although I will never know if this is true or just second-hand nostalgia. The new norm of homogenised subcultures mashed together online and lacking a clear identity have no doubt also had a knock-on effect on the music that we see being released now.

The globalisation of the internet age has diluted communities, producing widespread identity crises which have left many with a sense of loss and insecurity. It is easier now for youth to aestheticise past cultures, picking and choosing the best bits from various styles. Availability of the internet and the extent to which we live online has been a driving factor in this cultural phenomenon. The new level of individualism that this has brought on has left a gaping hole where community was once a source of drive and meaning. Now individuals increasingly seek out subcultures purely as a source of aesthetic inspiration without any of the deeper level of community and expression.

With the infinite regurgitation of past styles that has dominated 21st century music, it seems that the bleak visions of cancelled futures by Mark Fisher are all too real. The late great writer described such a collapse of expectation and the lack of any defining movement. The postmodern state of our culture has brought the march of progress to an abrupt halt for British music. It often seems as though we are trapped in the past, with every new song released (even the most enjoyable) being just a reverberation from the past that still haunt us. Lack of expectation leads to lack of new cutting-edge developments; it almost feels now as though we do not want to move forward but are happy to wallow in pasts which many of us have not even lived.

In a lecture given to a Multimedia Institute in Zagreb back in 2014, Fisher describes a sort of makeshift theoretical test that can be applied to a piece of music. The basic idea is taking a selected song or album and transporting it back 20 years and thinking about the kind of reception it would get. For an act like Kraftwerk this would likely result in shock as the people of 1954 would hardly be able to comprehend the proto-techno sounds that they were experiencing. To them, this would not be music as they knew it. The disparity between their familiar and this alien art-form would cause the listener to question their understanding of music.

Now take one of the most popular bands of the 21st century: the Arctic Monkeys. If their debut album were transported back to 1986 then listeners would likely enjoy the album, perhaps ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ would be as successful as in 2006. This is not due to some sort of immortal greatness of the music, but is an indicator that music has hardly advanced in the 20 year gap. This is as damning an allegation as it gets in terms of British music and the cultural stagnation is stark when using this makeshift test.

Now more than ever it looks like a recovery of a British music scene is in grave danger. For a long while now things have been on the decline, with institutions such as the NME failing to keep up with online progress against the backdrop of the closure of so many fan favourite independent venues. Politics in Britain has also dictated the fall of the arts, with less support for people with a low income such as musicians and seemingly endless cuts to public housing. Cities now resemble a yuppie echo chamber, a group who are not particularly known for their creativity and artistic expression. Where there used to be independent venues and squatters trying to make it in underground music scenes now there are gastropubs and chain clubs. The small guy has been violently pushed out, not through any particular decision but through the insidious increase in rents and the steady gentrification of cities across the country.

Looking at the failing output of British musicians, I would personally love to blame the blandness of British ‘indie’ rock that seemed to perpetrate the radiowaves for most of my adolescence. While it would be great to point to the lack of ambition of the most successful bands of the 2010s, it seems the issues run far deeper. The lack of drive and innovation that plagued the rock scene and manifested in leather clad pricks singing about birds and beers has been costly. The cultural erosion perpetrated by Alex Turner, Matt Healy and Van McCann has devastated British rock, but they are not the sole offenders. The issues faced by music as a whole such as lack of funding or support for exciting new artists and bland impersonal releases are far more of an industry wide phenomenon than just an attack by the mop-top villains mentioned above. Even in the more exciting prospects of British music such as grime, there is still a feeling of not being able to escape the original movements of hip-hop and jungle from decades before.

The threat of independent venues going extinct seems more real now than ever before, along with the devastation of many young artists livelihoods from the lack of live performances since the start of the Coronavirus lockdowns. Those that would have been considered up-and-coming are now down-and-out, having all of the youthful vigour drained from them in what could prove to the toughest ever year for musicians around the world. Looking at some of the more cultural problems facing British music, it’s easier to understand the backdrop to the more immediate threats that the industry faces.

Credit to UK Music

UK Music, a group that campaign and lobby for the interests of the British music industry, found that musicians tend to struggle to survive from their streaming, sales and performance revenues alone. Most will have to find other ventures such as teaching, workshops or working for venues and music related businesses. The study released by UK Music shows that in 2018 the average income of a musician, £23,059 was significantly lower than the UK average pf £29,832. When looking at the specific case studies in the report it is clear that most musicians will rely on live performances for one third to over a half of their overall income.

Given the recent worldwide hit that music has taken with venues closing for most of the year due to Coronavirus, it is fair to say that almost everyone working in the music industry has faced a major threat to their livelihood. The Culture Recovery Fund, which was set up as an initial boost to fund venues and artists through this hard time, was a good start in supporting the industry but many from within the industry say that this will not suffice. UK Music states that music tourism in the UK is a major part of the entertainment industry, supporting over 45,000 jobs and bringing over £4.5 billion into the UK economy. As this is clearly such an important sector both financially and culturally to the UK, the importance of saving the industry really cannot be understated.

As if all of the uncertainty brought on by a global pandemic was not enough for touring musicians, those based in Britain will also have to contest with new travel regulations once the dust fully settles from Brexit. A new immigration bill could prove deadly to artists trying to make a living from touring to fund their projects and could then have a knock-on deterrence to aspiring musicians. Piled on top of this is a change to US visa costs that will also affect touring artists. This could see a 50% increase to the cost of the already infamously elusive visas, putting a US tour further out of reach for many aspiring artists. It’s been increasingly harder to make a living solely from making music for years now, but these recent developments could be the tipping point for many artists not just in Britain, but across the world.  

In a time where touring is not a feasible way of making money for artists, they will find the minuscule streaming revenues hit them extra hard. With streaming platforms such as Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube cornering the market and providing millions across the world with access to music, it could be argued they provide an invaluable service. This has, however, come at the cost of vastly reduced physical sales of music and a disproportionate financial return to independent artists.

Whilst the Drakes and Ed Sheerans of the world will make a killing on streaming royalties, for musicians that don’t accumulate millions of streams each month there is little money to be made. For example; Spotify only pays out an average of $0.00437 per stream. Say a new up and coming band releases a song, it does well, and so they accumulate 50,000 streams on Spotify. This will only net them approximately $220. For all of their work the band can, maybe, afford to pay the rent of one member for one month. How is this model expected to support bands and the wider music industry?

To sum up some of the monetary and cultural difficulties that a new British musician would face trying to start a career today I can list just a few of the major issues. Independent venues are facing mass closures, arts scenes are being systematically culled, artists cannot receive any income from touring due to a global pandemic, this may be complicated by Brexit and they will not be able to receive any proper income from streaming. So, all in all, not great. There has probably not been a less appealing time to try and ‘make it’ as a musician since the 1940s. All I can say is that I hope there is a light at the end of the tunnel and British music can leap forward rather than fall down into the void below, with every indie album I grow wearier and the chances of a new exciting movement seem slimmer.

Words by Ewan Blacklaw

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