Guitar Music Is Dead. Long Live Guitar Music
, January 11th, 2011 10:06
Yesterday, guitar music was pronounced dead for the umpteenth time. Luke Turner argues that it's a tired old argument - and one that, when we're looking outside the mainstream - is patently untrue
Yesterday, the Guardian ran a report saying that sales figures proved that rock music is kaput as a commercial and creative force. Knowledgeable rock heads Paul Gambaccini, Absolute Radio boss Clive Dickens and George Ergatoudis were wheeled out by the Guardian and music week to take turns at hammering the nails home, saying that the live market was only buoyant thanks to heritage acts.
These "rock is dead" (and, indeed "dance is dead") kerfuffles are a hardy perennial of the media. But, in recent years, there's a different slant to the debate. While in the 1990s the arrival of Britpop heralded the end of artificial pop before dying itself with newspapers enthusiastically reporting that guitar sales had plummeted in favour of decks as DJ culture took over (a trend reversed in the past ten years), there was then a genuine chance that a youth movement that had a singular methodology or aesthetic could top the charts. And, more significantly, it could do so without the need for a major record label or telly talent show to get it in front of the public. NME's Paul Stokes says that music is cyclical, and guitar music could well make a comeback – but is this still the case? Has the wheel not fallen off the genre bike?
With illegal filesharing making the music industry resemble a tableau involving a sticky mound of toothpaste next to its empty tube, Dark Lord Cowell omnipresent and the consumption of music so diverse, the supposed 'death' of the kind of guitar music that the harbingers of doom mourn is actually to be celebrated. They mean the post-Britpop, landfill indie that topped the charts in the middle years of the last decade. Back in 2010 (obviously prematurely declaring on the corpse that Gambaccini has now despatched) on Front Row, Jo Whiley pointed out that bands like The Enemy, Razorlight, The Fratellis and Kaiser chiefs had all foundered because they'd been under "too much pressure" to continue selling records. Indeed, Jo, if you step on a turd, it will squirt and squiggle between your shoeless toes. And it could be argued that with the likes of the Vaccines and Brother being tipped across the board, the soil atop the coffin lid is trembling. We'd certainly be first to offer to tramp the dirt down.
A more pertinent question to ask would be whether the charts these days actually have any relevance, or indeed work as a barometer of the relative health of musical genres. For those who worry about popularity, vitality can be measured in YouTube plays, Last.fm stats, Hype Machine fuss, or that funny little bar in Spotify. More than this, music is now fragmented into glorious splinters of many hues, something we're always keen to reflect on the Quietus. Sadly, in today's chart climate, the days of a maverick number one are probably long gone. I personally haven't listened to, or cared about, what's in the charts for over a decade. You only have to look at the commercialisation of Radio One and the extinction of nearly any leftfield music on the station to see that the main public sphere for being guided to non-mainstream song is over. Alright, so there's the internet, but that's a case of too much information, and too few knowledgeable guides.
Instead, we live in a time when we shouldn't give two hoots whether rock, pop, dance, hip hop or global YesWave is top of the hit parade, or whether it is played on guitar, synth, jews harp or digibanjo. Let us revel in the glorious cacophony of the post genre-led world. And if you must listen to your guitars, the Quietus would like to point you in the direction of Skull Defekts, Wire's deeply pop Red Barked Tree, Parts & Labor, Arboretum, Dead Skeletons, Swans, The Cave Singers, Josh T Pearson, Anna Calvi, Nadja, Shellac, Grandfather, British Sea Power, TIME, Shrinebuilder, UFOmammut, Mogwai, PJ Harvey, Gemma Ray, War House, Rhys Chatham, Wild Beasts, The Ex, White Hills, Electric Wizard, The Body, Esben & The Witch, Tweakbird, Eagle Twin, Grinderman, The Membranes, Pale Horses, 33, Arabrot, Gnod, Kellermensch, Rammstein (who, under everyone's noses, sell out arenas), and of course that band from Prestwich.