In a break from my normal oeuvre, a couple of weeks ago I went with my other half to see the “supergroup” (a term I am perhaps exaggerating here) McBusted, formed of McFly and Busted, both of whom enjoyed success in the UK a decade ago. Whilst I knew what I would expect as to the venue (faceless stadium) and the clientele (a mix of tweens and 30-somethings reliving their student days), what really stood out to me was the way in which this concert exemplified the current mass-music scene in the UK.
The last time McFly or Busted really enjoyed success we were all getting used to our first-gen iPods, the clunky clickwheels acting as a novelty and a marker of status. Now, the ubiquity of music devices means that we live in a world where the compact disc is staring into the abyss, where people don’t buy albums, merely tracks—if they purchase at all—and the humble vinyl has stepped up as the muso’s choice of physical format. There is no doubt that the music industry has been shaken over the past ten years, knocked from the lofty perch of threatening to mass-sue Napster users, to realizing that there is money to be made, as long as they adapt, not react. Thus the concert demonstrated the two mechanisms that seem to be prevailing in the music industry at the minute—alternate revenue streams and homogenization.
The latter first, then. During the usual support band rotation, typical of major pop concerts (four songs, get offstage, let the next group on), there were no fewer than three support acts: Young Brando, E of E (don’t ask me), and the ludicrously named The Three Dudes. Each of those was allocated their 15 minutes, and blasted through four ditties.
What galled was the fact that aside from Young Brando, the other acts relied heavily on covers, or even more egregiously, live mash-ups. Thus we endured no fewer than five songs that we had heard before—hardly a baton for selling an up and coming band. E of E opened with that infamous “Smells Like Teen Spirit”/“Billie Jean” mash-up, whilst The Three Dudes fumbled their way through Blur’s “Song 2.” It was depressing stuff. However, as the music industry has spread out, and with something for everyone now available online, it was telling of a business model that relied on sure-fire hits. Granted, even The Beatles weren’t above covering artists in their formative years, but to have (in the case of The Three Dudes) 75% of your material pilfered from elsewhere strikes as the industry reverting to what sells.
From where has this emerged? It is likely the heavy hand of The X-Factor has played a role in this. There is comfort in familiarity—film theorists call it “plaisir”—and this extends to the fans, the reaction the band receives, and most likely the coffers of the management. One look at the output of next One Direction wannabes The Vamps shows their reliance on Live-Lounge-esque covers, and reinforces that this is an act of desperation. What will happen in 20 years when bands are covering covers? I can’t wait to find out.
If that was the negative, the alternative forms of revenue that were presented were quietly, if cynically, impressive. Music groups have finally realized that people like—nay, expect— things for gratis in 2014, and so it was that each act duly and gamely read through their script telling us to “visit our website to download a free copy of this next track.” Brand awareness, monetization of adverts, and hits paying the way. And it worked. In front of me, a woman in her twenties thumbed through her phone, not recording, but browsing the Internet, stopping briefly to size up the attractiveness of E of E before bookmarking the page.
And in case you missed it, the monitors emblazoned the Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook names of each group—the savvier ones having the same name for all three. It was clever, inventive stuff, and likely the direction of the mass-music scene for the next few years.
Music as an industry, as a commodity, is in an incredibly interesting place right now—it’s fighting to survive. Adapt or die. On the surface of McBusted’s night at the Glasgow Hydro, there is a clear short-term solution in place—but the lack of originality may hurt down the line.
And what of the gig itself? Ach, it was good fun.