The X Factor – the death of real music?

My first post on here (yes i finally got round to it!)!

I spend most of my time blogging profusely in my main cyber home (http://spiderplant88.wordpress.com) but thought that this post might be relevant here and I was motivated enough to throw the missive out there for comment!

I finally relented this evening and put the X Factor final on. Boy do I wish I had not bothered. What a travesty. None of the final three acts were in any way outstanding and worthy of the attention that is being thrown at them from all quarters of the media, music and otherwise. Now call me a musical snob, but there is a lot to be said for musicians working their way up the music tree and earning their stripes in the pubs and clubs of the land until they make it to a larger audience. There are hundreds of hard working musicians around the country plying their trade and trying to use every avenue open to them to get their music heard by the masses.

The Internet and the growth of social media has made their challenge a little easier in some respects and meant that they no longer have to rely on the major labels to get them into peoples ear space. For far too long the major labels have dictated who and what we should listen to. Years ago, when I left college, I couldn’t get the job I wanted in the design industry (took me ten years to get there) and instead i took a job with my second passion and worked for Our Price Records in Waterloo Station. In those days though the labels had a lot of control, we were still able in our stores, to lay out personal spaces for music suited to the demographic of the area where our store was. I worked in a number of stores as i worked my way up the ranks from part time sales assistant to store manager including Streatham, Wood Green, Covent Garden, Waterloo and Victoria Stations, Heathrow Airport and East Ham. Each area had a different musical ear from Reggae in South London to mainstream pop in the stations. It made it interesting for us trying to gauge what people listened to and making the sales walls relevant to each area. Each of the buyers knew their area and market and ordered stock based on what the public wanted to hear and requested in the store. It was a great time.

Then in the mid 90’s Our Price head office changed their strategy and took the control away. Ever harnessed by the major labels and their buying power, the store took the decision to standardise the range in all the stores meaning that local requests didnt count any more. It was the death knell for the chain and so proved to be. Within 6 years, Our Price was sold to Virgin Megastores and a little gem was gone forever. My passion for live music remained and by this time i had found a job working for a design agency and was doing the job that i had trained to do and was passionate about. I was struck by a certain irony that whilst i had finally been given the chance to do what i had always wanted to do, there were hundreds of music artists out there that didnt have that chance and although we only helped in a little way promoting local artists, yet another avenue for promoting them was gone. As i watch the X Factor churn out yet more manufactured pap that has no individuality and no creativity to speak off, I am reminded of how great the music industry used to be. The live music scene in London was something else. On a Friday night i was never happier than taking myself off to a small venue to see an unsigned act or a larger venue to see a favourite act.

Nowadays its all about how much money you can get from the act and the music is lost. As they are forever saying on the X Factor, its not just about the singing any more its about the whole package. To me that is garbage. I don’t care what an artist wears, i don’t care who they are seeing in their private life or what footballer or model they are shagging. To be its about whether they can sing or play their instrument well and entertain me. Today that is all gone. All the bands that grace our stages sound the same, the market is flooded with boy bands and girl bands whose only job is to titlate and half of them actually cant sing a note in tune in the first place. Tonights X Factor final was exactly as i thought it would be. Olly Murs the cheeky chappy from Cochester who relies on his charm when his voice fails him, Stacey Soloman the barbie doll from Dagenham who can hold a note sometimes but is a balladesque one trick pony and the stage school drop out Joe McElderry who pulls at your heart strings with his puppy dog eyes.

Its a travesty and not what music is about. I miss the says when playing or singing in a band and writing your own music made all the difference. That died a death years ago and this the drivel that we are left with.

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7 Comments

  1. Lisa, thanks so much for this – the Our Price story is a key one. I bought a lot of things back in the day in Our Price on the ‘our staff recommend’ racks – all kinds of weird stuff. I ended up trusting the staff in the various branches of Our Price that I frequented. It clearly wasn’t an indie record shop in the ‘High Fidelity’ sense, but it was localised, and had personality…

    I’m not sure that X-Factor is the death of real music, though… it feels like the co-opting of music as the soundtrack to a rather involved game-show. It’s got more in common with the Generation Game than with The Old Great Whistle Test, in that it’s a game show where the ‘experts’ show them how to do it, then they have a bash at it, are a bit shit, but hey, everybody loves a trier…

    I’ve said before that the weird combination of impulses that drive X-Factor seem to be Nostalgia and Schadenfreude – listening to old songs that people love, but laughing at morons who screw them up… I don’t want to be a part of that, but I also don’t see it as having anything to do with what those of us who play music because we’re passionate about the power of music rather than the addictive power of fame. It’s a distraction, but I’m not sure that many people are sitting down of an evening and choosing between X-Factor and going out to a cellar club to see a band play… I might be wrong, but it seems more like it’s a choice between PS3 or X-Factor, Friends boxed-set or X-Factor…

    The big lie is that people still talk about it as though it’s a music show. We need to resist that, call it what it is, and keep pushing the benefits of music that matters.

    Something has been lost, but it’s been lost across western culture – it’s as much a crisis of macro-economics as it is of Simon Cowell being pond-life. The big marketeers have got better and better at selling integrated product – TV shows that work as games, feed magazines, have tonnes of spin-off sales ops and create celebs who go on earning, paying a percentage of their earnings into the pockets of those who gave them their ‘big break’ and their first horrific contract… Great business model, terrible for getting anything of cultural value into the mainstream media.

    So we ignore the mainstream media altogether and continue to talk about the things that matter… There’s definitely a war of words at work, and we can’t let piss poor cabaret colonise the language of ‘music’ – we must differentiate between the two. And I don’t think it’s that hard, given how little of reality or substance is ever generated by these shows. That Will Young is the best musician to have emerged from any of them is to damn them with feint praise…

  2. I know what you mean Steve buy you know shows like the X Factor, Britains got talent etc are just another symptom of something that is fundamentally wrong with the music industry as a whole and has been brewing for years. The problem that I really have with these kind of shows is that while sensible types who love real music such as you and I realise what they are, the masses are accepting them as the standard for what music is all about and buying the mass overproduced crap they churn out each year as though it was the best thing that had ever been produced.

    All this at the expense of bands that work their behinds off with little or no exposure and no chance of the kind of success that these so called ‘hopefuls’ get given for 13+ weeks of TV exposure to millions of people for free regardless of whether they can sing or not.

    That leads me onto my other bug bear. The music has become secondary to the look and feel of the end product. Now it’s all about what they look like rather than what they sound like and that’s the real travesty. I said earlier, I don’t care what they look like, I care what they sound like and whether their music comes from the heart and mean something. Something that they have created and cherished until they felt they could release it to the world. Not this cover by cover blow conveyor belt regurgitating other peoples songs (most of which are standard pop fare too)

    It speaks volumes that of the many jobs I have had in my life, only two did I actually enjoy. My current job working for RNID making life better for people who are deaf or hard of hearing is rewarding in ways I never knew existed. The other was my job in Our Price. The pleasure you get from introducing someone to a style of music or an artist that they might not otherwise have heard was hugely gratifying and I miss it. It wasn’t quite a “I will now sell three copies of the 3 EPs by the Beta Band, I grant you” but we had our moments. I have a clear cut memories of selling about 50 copies of Mick Karns Bestial Cluster during my time at Our Price in Streatham and actually had head office phone me up to question if it was a mistake or not and had I actually sold them!

    Now sales assistants in these places are robots who just take the money that comes over the counter to them. They have no knowledge of anything outside the standard chart format and unless you want to talk about Kaiser Chiefs of Tynchy Snyder you wont even get them to break into a smile of enthusiasm.

    The world has gone slowly mad. Thank goodness there are artists like you out there that keep the home fires burning.

  3. I think people who work in CD shops have as obscure knowledge as much as they ever have done – the people i know certainly have from old soul 12 inches to brazilian hardcore to jazz funk to indian music and beyond. And a massive passion for music way beyond the “charts”

  4. Apologies in advance for the likely length of this reply, but I’m getting a little tired of all the “look how awful X-Factor is and look how wonderful independent music is” articles.

    Firstly, independent record shops:
    I once had a Christmas job working with HMV. We were told exactly what to stock and where to stock it, and we were given five albums that we had to play on repeat for the entire week – these albums were, obviously, all on major labels who had paid HMV lots of money for this privilege.

    But the staff were all equally as enthusiastic and knowledgeable as any I’ve encountered in independent record shops. I was working at HMV on the day that Joe Strummer died, and as soon as the last customer left our Assistant Manager put on London Calling and we all sang along – as a Clash fan, it was a good place to be. And after Christmas, HMV were selling Grace by Jeff Buckley for £4, and I had countless conversations with customers who bought it and with music fans looking to spend their Christmas gift vouchers. Just because it’s not independently-owned doesn’t mean that it can’t lead to people finding new music.

    And the X-Factor:
    Lisa said: “Now call me a musical snob, but there is a lot to be said for musicians working their way up the music tree and earning their stripes in the pubs and clubs of the land until they make it to a larger audience. There are hundreds of hard working musicians around the country plying their trade and trying to use every avenue open to them to get their music heard by the masses.”

    Some of the contestants have done exactly that. Finalists Jamie and Olly have ‘earned their stripes in the pubs and clubs’ and ended up on X-Factor as a result of ‘trying to use every avenue open to them’. Are they now OK?

    And how about the Arctic Monkeys? They only played a few gigs before getting signed, but because they very quickly developed a fanbase, they sold out the Astoria not too long after forming. They haven’t ‘earned their stripes in the pubs and clubs’, damn them! Quick, take their record deal off them and force them to play in crappy pubs in London where they don’t get paid, have to guarantee a certain number of people through the door and no-one listens to them!

    Lisa also said “It’s a travesty and not what music is about. I miss the days when playing or singing in a band and writing your own music made all the difference.” Yep, let’s write off Aretha Franklin and (mostly) Billie Holiday, or any number of Motown singers over the years, or many many more, because they didn’t write their own music.

    It’s only in the last fifty years that we’ve expected our singers to ‘be in bands’ or write their own music, and only in the last thirty that we’ve taken this attitude that those who are only skilled in performing music are a lower class than those who write music. And no, I don’t like the music that the X-Factor winners produce, but so what? I don’t buy it.

    Lisa also said that “The Internet and the growth of social media has made their challenge a little easier in some respects and meant that they no longer have to rely on the major labels to get them into peoples ear space.” Well, exactly. So if we can now discover music without having to rely on major labels (or those damn non-independent record shops), why are we so concerned about the record shops or the major labels? I buy the music that I find by going to gigs, listening to Spotify, listening to 6Music (or should that also be banned, because it’s, like, so corporate, man?) and recommendations from mates. If the plebs want to buy a single by the X-Factor winner, let ’em waste their money.

    1. I too worked for HMV as a Christmas temp but the point I am making is this. Why should it be down to the major labels and subsequently the record shop to tell us what we can listen to? There is a wealth of music out there that is not necessarily mainstream that gets bypassed because a select few people at a music label or store THINK that its cool and thats what we should be listening to. Its the lack of freedom of choice and limiting of kinds of music that i am firmly against.

      As for being in the store when Joe Strummer died. Well he is my musical hero firstly. Secondly why should you have had to wait until the last customer had left the store before honouring someone who gave more to the music industry in terms of artistic integrity and musicianship than bland over produced pap like the Arctic Monkeys have ever done? It should have been played loud and proud when the shop was full in my opinion. My Strummer honour moment came at the end of a red hot chili peppers gig in Hyde Park when the put Redemption Song from Street Core on as the crowds were leaving. It was a summers evening, we had all had a great night and everyone was singing it softly – it was a real hair on the back of your neck moment.

      Jamie Archer was indeed a half way decent artist on there and look what happened to him. Ridiculed and out down at every turn by a weasel like Louis Walsh or Simon Cowell. Neither of those two would know what real music was if it slapped them in the face.

      You are misinterpreting what i am saying talking about the great soul singers. That was a different era and time and their voices in the main had songs written especially for them. They were one of a kind and of a time. Do you think they would last five minutes in todays market no? They don’t look right for a start and they cant shatter glasses like Mariah can. Its also not what people want these days.

      “It’s only in the last fifty years that we’ve expected our singers to ‘be in bands’ or write their own music, ”

      Erm, sorry thats incorrect. I don’t think anyone expects singers to always be in bands and i certainly would not say that this change has only happened in the last 50 years. Singers have been with or without bands dependent on genre since music began.

      “and only in the last thirty that we’ve taken this attitude that those who are only skilled in performing music are a lower class than those who write music.”

      Well that attitude certainly didn’t emanate from my post. I have utmost respect for musicians whether they write or perform. I was in the London School Symphony Orchestra as a teen and i don’t remember writing Mozart’s Horn Concertos but i do remember playing them.

      I should also add that whilst i play bass (badly) and classical guitar (equally badly) I cannot write songs and take great pride in playing along to the CDs in my collection. That doesn’t make me any less relevant as a musician in my mind. The fact that I am doing it for passion and enjoyment is the main element…. BUT I would not think myself so vain as to turn up on TV for 13 weeks (when i know i can sing and sang in 4 bands in my youth) and expect a £1 million recording contract after a major makeover and critique from the likes of Simon Cowell. Its pure vanity karaoke and NOT music. If you want to see that kind of music, by a PS3 and play Singstar and save yourself the voting phone call! Know what I mean?

      “So if we can now discover music without having to rely on major labels (or those damn non-independent record shops), why are we so concerned about the record shops or the major labels?

      Because they limit choice when it is not their place to do so. They make it harder of hard working musicians to make a living and they squeeze out talent in favour of looks and celebrity. There is no way that that is good for music and YES in my mind it has done irrevocable damage over the years and continues to do so.

      I wont buy what that dross produces either. I just wish others would wake up and smell the coffee is all!

      All IMHO of course

      Peace

      1. But it is now easier than ever to discover and enjoy all sorts of music outside the mainstream. “Pop music” has always been pretty vapid – think of all those years when you never saw an instrument plugged in on Top of the Pops.

        Surely major labels are the ones who have lost most ground in recent years, as they lose their stranglehold on international distribution and recording technology. The continued vitality of the dream of stardom, as evidenced by the popularity of The X Factor and the like, suggests even they have a way to go before their course is run.

        Music, by musicians with integrity and able to reach a wide audience of people who care, is probably healthier than ever.

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