Fiona Sturges: Things don't sound good in the pop world - but don't despair

'Consumers are buying fewer records because they've become wise to the music industry'
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The Independent Online

There was a time when my friends thought I had a blessed existence. "You get paid to go to gigs?" they would gasp, overcome with envy. Each week I would be deluged with phone calls begging (in some cases bribing) me for my extra ticket. In short, I was pretty damn popular.

There was a time when my friends thought I had a blessed existence. "You get paid to go to gigs?" they would gasp, overcome with envy. Each week I would be deluged with phone calls begging (in some cases bribing) me for my extra ticket. In short, I was pretty damn popular.

Without wishing to sound too pathetic, things have changed. The phone doesn't ring as much as it used to, and when it comes to finding a companion for a concert, I'm usually the one doing the begging. Of course, I like to think of this as more a reflection on the state of music than on my lack of mates.

These days, one of the most common discussions in pop music is how it's in the midst of a crisis. Pick up any music paper and you will find repeated references to the tyranny of major labels and the lengths they will go to for instant profits. On the surface, there is reason to be gloomy. In 2001 the global market saw its sales drop by 20 per cent. Over the last few years, mergers and downsizing have effectively reduced the industry to four all-powerful conglomerates. Even those smaller record labels with well-known artists on their rosters are hitting the deck, unable to compete with their larger rivals.

It's hardly surprising then that, in creative terms, pop seems stuck in neutral. British bands in particular have chosen to look back rather than forward for inspiration, becoming pale facsimiles of what came before. Dour, middle-of-the-road rock seems to be the music of choice for alternative music fans, while pre-pubescent teenagers seem disturbingly content with successions of pre-packaged pop bands.

With one or two exceptions, Britain seems pathologically incapable of producing a decent rap act, and as for dance music, let's just say it ain't what it used to be. This year's Brit Award nominations display the usual dearth of cutting-edge acts, and a depressing concentration of reliable chart favourites – Robbie, Kylie, Geri, Sophie. Nope, things don't look good for music. But that's not to say that pop fans, even grown-up ones, should throw out their record collections and resign themselves to a lifetime of listening to Radio 2. As the last three decades have demonstrated, music comes in cycles.

In the early Nineties Nirvana dominated the music scene; during this time British bands couldn't get a look in. At the time the music press was awash with articles about the death of British rock. But then came a bunch of home-grown bands – Oasis, Blur and friends – with sufficient attitude to get our attention. Now, after years of Britpop's smug effrontery, the focus has shifted back to the US. The Strokes and the White Stripes are two bands that caught our imaginations last year. Such was the hype that the White Stripes, the brother-and-sister duo from Detroit, were even featured on Radio 4's Today programme.

For once, the hype was deserved – a critic from this paper declared the Stripes "the best live band on the planet". If nothing else, it showed that the demand for fresh and innovative music was still out there. That consumers are buying fewer records is possibly because they've become wise to the ways of the music industry. Manufactured bands simply don't inspire the same levels of adulation that they used to. Just compare the outpouring of grief that greeted Take That's split to the faint whimpers following the dissolution of Steps last week.

Perhaps we can thank programmes such as Popstars and Pop Idol for revealing the ingrained cynicism of the music industry. Up-and-coming bands are becoming similarly wary of major labels. In the mid-Nineties, bands were easily wooed by fat cheques and big-name record companies. Now, the independent sector is flourishing as bands look for fairer deals and buyers look for an alternative to the bland fare supplied by the majors.

Good music is always out there – you just need to know where to find it. A cursory glance at the end-of-year round-ups will direct your attention to legions of great albums released last year, and not just by established acts. Not only are there great musicians operating on the fringes of the mainstream, but there's an endless supply of exciting new bands waiting to be signed. Of course, in this climate of corporate downsizing and get-rich-quick signings, music lovers must wade through a lot of dross to find the good stuff. A little patience is required, that's all.

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