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News & Review

Sense and Saleability: The Commercialisation of Rock

Posted on March 17, 2015 at 10:20 AM

A look at how the composition and consumption of music has changed over time, with the burgeoning industrialisation of music the major catalyst

Ever since some greedy, green eyed and besuited businessman realised there was money to be made from music, when they realised that it was a sellable product and transformed it into an industry, bands with raw talent have been increasingly left in the dark in favour of slick image and saleability. So much so to the point that it seems almost the entirety of the mainstream music scene right now is awash with style over substance. The process has been slow, admittedly, but the music we see atop the charts is music made with a financial goal as the main incentive, not just for the sake of enjoyment, love and to temporarily calm a restless soul.

Often coupling itself with the poster boy, cliché endearing image that has been chiselled into the industry is a more generic musicianship as the style outweighs their substance on the scales of importance. Good looking singers get more column space than pureblood virtuosity far too often. You only need to look at the fact that someone like Jedward or, to use a non-musical example, Kim Kardashian are household names when the likes of Lamb of God and Opeth are very much the opposite. But - and here's the clincher - as I find myself sitting and enduring another hapless money making drone croon their way through the latest fad single – and I’m damn sure I’m not alone here – there is no doubting that whoever this artist is will be revel in popularity and commercial viability, most likely with, like a bottle milk, a sell by date slapped on their side. But because it sounds like all that has sold well before, because it’s such a safe bet the general populous seem eager to lap it up in favour of something perhaps a little darker, daring and altogether more artistically intrinsic. The same could indeed be said of the label bigwigs responsible for signing new acts. That’s not to say that talented artists are being ignored entirely and indeed a lucky few get the break they deserve, but when gazing over the bigger picture, it’s incredibly disheartening to see who exactly the world deems a megastar these days. Of course, within the circles of rock and metal, bands do get the credit they deserve, but the focus here is on rock inside the greater circle of the mainstream.

Music has, over time, gone from being something natural, emotive and powerful – fanfares were written to mark the grandiose arrival of a King in a stately court, classical composers would write entire symphonies, lavish in instrumentation, technicality and pure aesthetic beauty, to confess their undying love for a woman, American slaves used music as a way of channelling their emotions and voicing their opinions – to something that merely sky rockets some label executive’s bank balance.





Did you know: Wade in the Water, a song of The Underground Railroad, written in the early 19th Century was written to tell others black African Americans how to escape their captors. It is believed that songs such as these were used as secret coded messages for escaping slaves. Wade in the Water warned them to flee dry land for the water so that the dogs and owners chasing them couldn’t track their scent.



Where Vivaldi once scored a four part symphony dedicated to the seasons, a sprawling, multi-dimensional and emphatic piece, Nicki Minaj now wiggles her zeppelin sized arse while ‘singing’ about how her “anaconda don’t.” I look at that and say that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. Minaj’s song sells almost entirely on its thinly veiled euphemistic value and the softcore pornography that parades itself as an accompanying music video. The music – the actual substance to it all – comprises of samples of Sir Mix-a-lot’s 1992 hit Baby Got Back and was penned by no less than six songwriters. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, for comparison, written solely by the Venetian composer, is ten times longer and he didn’t feel inclined to don a pair of hot pants and twerk against a snowman for the accompanying music video for Winter. It just seems the class has been sucked out of the maintstream music industry, leaving unintelligent, sex-obsessed drivel left to bask ignorantly in its own unimportance.

But alas, here I stand toe-to-toe with the trigger which caused these impassioned scrawlings, staring the bugger right in the eyes and take aim. It’s Thursday night in early March and while Spring is trying it’s damndest to disarm the darkness and hinder its late afternoon arrivals and colder than a supervillain’s heart nature, Winter – reflected in Vivaldi’ more evocative and eerie movement – still plays King Of The Castle in Manchester’s bustling city centre.

Inside the Hard Rock Café things are much warmer as gear is set up for Hard Rock Rising. A yearly contest, pitched at the world’s biggest battle of the bands competition, it sees three bands contest one of three heats, leading to a final, to be crowned regional winner. The said winner then fights for a national hierarchy with the overall prize, at this point a speck of light at the end of a pitch black and overbearingly long tunnel, a spot at Hard Rock Rising Barcelona – a two day festival which attracts around 60,000 fans.

The heaviest band tonight is a classic rock band – the talented, blues-infused Renegade and Retrospect. The two band’s which follow – to a more sizable crowd may I hasten to add as more and more people arrived overtime – were indie bands. Without this coming across as music genre snobbery, lest we forget this is billed as Hard Rock Rising.

Renegade and Retrospect, while hardly mind-blowing, packed solid musicianship in their ranks. Guitarist Jordan Leppitt unravelled incendiary, fast licks from his long fingers throughout; although they were a little formulaic, craving the occasional elongated bend for added flare. Daniel Godwin finger picked his intricate bass lines flawlessly while interacting with the crowd regularly and drummer Gareth Hodges provided a solid heartbeat. It was a punchy set of hard rock but playing to a smatter of early arrivals it was hard for their set to truly burst into life.

Next up, accompanied by a large following of understandably biased fans – which could so easily have an influence upon the judges – were The Jade Assembly. Replicating the wardrobe and attitude described in the NME’s compelling book ‘How to be the World’s Best and Coolest Band Ever in the World’ and consequently brown nosing all their ultimately disposable, trend adhering idealism, this was the definition of style over substance. Only moments before had Real XS’s Steve Berry, one of the judges alongside Manchester Rock’s very own Daniel Clifford, been moaning about how a friend and colleague hoped for typical parka jackets in band. That’s what ticked his boxes in terms of what to look and listen out for in band, this was a man crying out for anything that bore similarities to Manchester’s infamous 90s indie scene. He had only just walked away from our table when the band began to set up – in parka jackets and gurning like Liam Gallagher as they did. Unbelievable.

During their set, built upon a foundation of one dimensional barre chords and run-of-the-mill structures and phrases, they sounded like every other band clutching to the coattails of this city’s musical heritage except lacking in the charisma and showmanship to get away with it. Despite their songs being supremely simplistic, their eyes rarely flicked away from their instruments, giving the audience nothing to feed off except frontman John Foster’s purposefully sour yet unconvincing swagger. They tried too hard to be typically Mancunian that the transparency fell flat on its backside for me. But for the others here, especially the mass following of converts they brought along to bolster their claim for a place in the regional final, the fact that it was so linear with hugely successful bands like Oasis and New Order meant it went down easily and harmlessly – like a pint after a hard days graft. To top it off their guitarist Gareth Smedley ended the set by raising his guitar in the air triumphantly with a snarling, ‘look at how cool I am’ look on his face. This is all despite the fact he hardly even played the thing. Yet they bowled off stage with a palpable buzz around the place. In spite of shoddy musicianship, a lack of ingenuity and the stage presence of a fart in a lift they’d gone down well. Much like Airbourne’s success is because of their kindredship with the unequivocally popular AC/DC, the fact this slotted into a tried and tested framework guaranteed them an easy ride. But this is a battle of the bands and you toeing the line will get you nowhere – or so I hoped.

For the third act, House of Thieves, the heat was theirs for the taking. Renegade and Retrospect were exactly what this competition was all about, talented rock n’ roll music, but minor faults here and there let them down. The Jade Assembly were nothing original, nothing the world doesn’t already have enough of and already have it in a better quality. But it was as if the organisers were afraid of offending anyone by putting the only actual rock band in any other slot than the opening one, where attendance will still be sparse. I hope this is simply a fear rather than a reality.

House of Thieves, thankfully, despite the fact they were overly image conscious with their singer adorned in a purple velvet blazer, the guitarist looking like a slicker, pouting Josh Homme and the bassist, in his black turtle neck jumper, looking like Julian Casablancas having a quiet night in, they actually knew how to play their instruments. Musically I will still stand by the fact that they really aren’t what the eventual winners of this competition should be, but on the night they were by far the best act. They played a variety of chords - add9s, sus4s and so on as opposed to the previous act's bog standard work in that respect - they had an undoubtable stage presence, crowd participation was frequent and were simply entertaining – albeit not enthralling. This wasn’t the definition of rock n roll, far from it in fact, but they produced a slick, faultless performance that, in three short, snappy songs gave a flavour of what the band is about.

When they were crowned winners of the night, there was a sense of relief sighed out from my disparate lungs. Musically speaking, Renegade and Retrospect fit the bill – they’d be a potent addition to the Hard Rock Calling Barcelona line-up, but were lacking in that edge to see them through. But the best band on the night did claim their just desserts.

My point here however, is the fact that a band like The Jade Assembly got this far in the first place. Tonnes of bands entered this competition and were subsequently put up to public vote as to who should be entered in the heats. They beat off metal and rock bands to get here – bands more talented, more diverse and quantifying in their original songs and bands working hard to keep the flame of proper heavy music alive. These were bands driven by passion, not image. But you could argue that by doing so, they alienated the general audience of the Hard Rock Café which is becoming increasingly mainstream. Indeed, throughout the night videos by the likes of Taylor Swift and Ellie Goulding played between The Melvins and more. Although there are redeeming moments, it’s not exactly a place for diehard metal fans, a haven for heaviness. Because, to the general populous, heavy music is ungraceful and a little bit disgusting, it isn’t commercial and so more widely appealing assets are injected in to steady the ship.

The thing is, music isn’t selling as it used to be for a myriad of reasons. Those green eyed, be-suited businessmen who clutched onto what wasn’t once an industry are getting worried that their bank accounts are plummeting back down to earth and so a band like The Jade Assembly are just what the doctor ordered: Risk free.

We here at Manchester Rocks pride ourselves in supporting the bands that are deserving of our attention as lovers of rock and metal and the following night I was treated to just that – an evening which distilled my faith that rock isn’t just some powerful money making commercial vehicle for the suits upon high. It may not get the glitzy appraisal and notoriety that their talent, song writing and all round excellence should do, but the following evening feels much more like home, much more like a place where you’d want to stay, where image isn’t of importance, where all are accepted and where all here are brothers and sisters in arms. And here, dear reader, is why...

End of part one.

Words: Phil Weller 
Photos: Phil Goddard 


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