05 April 2011
This season, some of the millennium’s greatest hopes for rock ‘n’ roll are set for new album releases. Critically- acclaimed and publicly-adored bands, The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys will have both delivered new offerings by mid-year, but can these bands and their contemporaries be viewed as anything other than purveyors of one really phenomenal, life-altering record?
Whether through single album deals, media overhype, ADD, instant access or critical savagery, has the ability for artists to enjoy long, successful recording careers been jeopardised? Or do the new offerings just not measure up?
Everybody remembers 2001 and The Strokes’ Is This It. NME certainly won’t let us forget. The New York quintet’s debut became an instant classic; taut, ‘70s-inspired garage rock, buoyed by skinny jeans and nonchalance. It was hailed as an instant masterpiece by music press the world over. “This is the stuff of which legends are made,” blared Rolling Stone. Countless others agreed, propelling the record to the top of the charts, to the top of the critical ‘Best Of’ lists and cementing The Strokes as the post-millennial zeitgeist.
Julian Casablancas’ band were praised for single-handedly usurping DJs and putting popular music culture back into the hands of skinny guitarists, a few of whom in the UK would start their own mini- revolution five years later with an album set to outperform The Beatles in first week sales; Arctic Monkeys. Like Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines and Bloc Party before them, Arctic Monkeys surfed a wave of industry and media hype and were proclaimed the future of music before they had finished breakfast.
Musical success comes down to expectations. Labels, fans and media all have them; some monetary, others aesthetic. But the climate has changed; every Strokes fan is now a critic, albeit one with a particularly short attention span and a penchant for sharing, blogging, ‘liking’ and leaking. Unlike Is This It, everybody heard Angles ahead of release and offered their opinion via social media. By the time you read this, says Richard Kingsmill, Music Director at Triple J, that new album is probably old news.
“Because of the access we all have and because of how fast things move these days, there is no doubt that the current generation of music fans are chewing through stuff faster,” he says. “It’s exciting finding something that’s good and brand new.”
However, Kingsmill is hesitant to label fans fickle. “They are still loyal...I don’t think they want bands to simply fail after one powerful album,” he says, “But if [subsequent albums] don’t quite hit the mark like the first one did, they can and will look elsewhere.”
George Palathingal, music writer at The Sydney Morning Herald agrees, “I don’t think the average music fan is fickle. I do think they have so much available to them that if something doesn’t interest them – or if something disappoints them – they’re within their rights to move on.”
Fair enough, reckons Clem Bastow, Music Editor at Big Issue and freelance critic. Labels aren’t giving bands like the Arctic Monkeys any time to develop. “There’s an unreasonable model in the industry to just get it out there while everyone’s paying attention,” she says. “There’s no trust in the listener to be able to have that patience to wait around or to allow artists to grow and expand their frame of reference.”
She has a point. Bloc Party and Arctic Monkeys both released three records in four years, all while touring relentlessly across the globe. The strain showed by their later albums, which charted poorly for the first time in each band’s career. As Bloc Party’s Intimacy headed to the rave cave and Arctic Monkey’s Humbug embraced sludgy stoner rock, fans and critics alike struggled to ‘get’ this new direction. “I think it’s endemic across fans and labels equally,” Clem volunteers, “the idea of [follow-ups] is less about how difficult it is to write one and more about how to market it if a band decide – god forbid – to progress artistically.”
It wasn’t always like this. Bands used to grow organically. It took Red Hot Chili Peppers until album number five to hone a commercially successful sound, while Fleetwood Mac only really hit paydirt with Rumours, their eleventh record. “When bands like Arctic Monkeys are marketed in such a hyperbolic way, where do you go from there?” asks Bastow. “They came out in this explosion of hype; the ‘greatest album ever’ by the most ‘incredible new band in the universe’, and then they’re sort of done.”
Aggressive marketing and incessant web chatter often go hand in hand, and both can screw with a band’s chances of longterm survival. The online community can suffer from hyping things too much,” says Kingsmill. “I read what bloggers have to say with a degree of cynicism...but people aren’t stupid and the [Internet] is also a great leveller, with opinions coming thick and fast from all areas.”
He cites MGMT as an example of a band that blew up on the strength of blog hype before their follow-up, Congratulations, led to an intense backlash last year. “[The fans] didn’t know Ben and Andrew were actually into quite wildly obscure psychedelic sounds,” he says. “The mainstream fans disappeared quickly because they didn’t appreciate that side of the group.”
It’s also likely that the artists are feeling the heat from the kitchen. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an album-to-album deal these days,” says Bastow. “That whole ten-year, ten-album deal thing is a thing of the past, at least in the alternative genre.”
As A&R shifts away from artist discovery and towards cross- promotion, syncs and social media campaigns, the timeframe for success continues to shrink. “The pressure is on an act to come up with that second album fast before a wave of newer acts overtakes them,” says Kingsmill. “And often acts have just not had enough time to write and properly bed-in those new songs so subsequent albums come out half-baked.”
There’s no better place to see that in action than in our own backyard. Jet, The Sleepy Jackson and Wolfmother have all fallen into the sophomore slump, crashing and burning after soaring to spectacular heights with their debuts. “I think Jet’s third album was the best they’ve done, but it didn’t go down that well,” says Bastow, “What was frustrating from a critic’s perspective was that the singles the label chose to release were the most conventionally ‘Jet’- sounding songs, so it sunk without a trace.” Kingsmill isn’t so sure. “Bands can bounce back though. It’s not necessarily the end of the world if some records miss the mark. The acts that are in it for the long haul can survive such ‘disappointments’. If they don’t, then they were only meant to shine bright for a short time.”
While The Strokes found their feet with Angles (debuting at #1 last week in the ARIA Albums chart, and #3 in the UK), The National and Arcade Fire, who also dropped their debuts after 9/11, are ageing like fine wine. Each group has managed to net the most love for their recent releases. So what gives? “Staying true to your ideals is the key. If a fan gets the slightest whiff of sell out or compromise, they’re outta there,” says Kingsmill.
“The National stayed true to those ideals [on High Violet] and delivered a great record.” Though Palathingal still prefers Funeral, he doesn’t see any reason why newer bands like Arcade Fire shouldn’t eclipse their debuts. “People get better at their jobs in all fields and songwriters are no exception. Indeed, songwriters should get better with experience, as many have in the past.”
While he admires bands for mixing it up, Kingsmill maintains that the most successful acts in the long- term are those who also know their limitations. “Arctic Monkeys tried to be something they simply were not on Humbug. They had to give it a shot to find out,” he says. But it’s possible that the big question nobody is asking is whether some of these new acts actually have the goods to outlast the honeymoon period. “Some writers only have one great book in them. Others have 25. Music is the same.”
Nobody wants a culture where bands disappear into ignominy after a debut, even if that debut did change the face of rock music. Palathingal is particularly hopeful: “I love the idea of an artist that I never liked coming up with something that I do. Similarly, I live in hope of acts I already love bettering their past work.” The fans will come back, agrees Kingsmill, if the tunes excite them, regardless of hype. “If you want to see how to do it right, look at a band like Arcade Fire. I don’t see their original fans burning their albums now because they’ve won a Grammy.” The upstarts just need some downtime after their first big victory. Maybe the new rock revolution isn’t over after all.
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