Emblazoned on the wall of the gents’ toilets in Glasgow’s legendary venue King Tuts Wah Wah Hut is a particularly insightful quote from the Godfather of Gonzo journalism Hunter S Thompson:
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.”
Whilst it turns out that these words have been somewhat misappropriated (the original quote, from Generation of Swine actually concerns the TV industry and in true Gonzo style is markedly different) it’s easy to see why they strike a chord. For the allure of the music industry never seems to diminish for those seeking a career in song – despite its well-known predilection for bitching, backstabbing, and acts of questionable morality. In fact, these characteristics only serve to add a certain frisson of excitement – the quid pro quo for those artists in search of the “big push” by major labels. Like Ralph Macchio in Crossroads, if you sign a deal with the devil then sooner or later you know you’ll pay the price.
And yet as we all know, the traditional model of the music business is under great threat and changing day-by-day. The landscape is already radically different from the one I stumbled upon less than seven years ago as a young independent musician. Now it’s all about the online content and social media momentum, baby. The major labels are falling around our ears, outwitted, outmoded and – let’s face it – too slow to catch up with the rapid changes in how we enjoy our music. But from my short time on BBC Radio Scotland, I’m glad to report that you – my dear listener – still have a vociferous appetite for great music and it hasn’t abated one bit, even if you’ve had to adapt your methods of consumption.
As musicians, we’ve had to learn to adapt too. Whereas once a coveted spot on Top Of The Pops – or latterly Later with Jools Holland – was the ultimate vehicle to help get noticed and shift units, these days bands will sell their grannies for a decent “sync” (or placement) in an advert, TV show or film. The benefits from such wide exposure can be huge, making or breaking artists, and bringing in enough money to allow for the purchase of at least 20 replacement grandmothers (just in case the guilt sets in). And that has been the route to market for The Lumineers – Record Of Note on the show this week – who have been playing together for over 5 years without much notice being paid to their simple but affecting brand of folk rock. In 2011 the Colorado based band were playing open mic nights to 100 people in Denver, and yet only a year later found themselves firmly ensconced in the Billboard 100 and selling out venues up and down the country.
The chief catalyst? Placement of their song “Hey Ho” in the season finale of a big American TV show, which consequently kicked off a tidal wave of social media buzz. Although some may see this as just as corporate a route to take, there is no doubt that it can allow independent bands to do things their own way, one super-shot of exposure to the arm giving artists the chance to build an audience with little interference from those pesky record executives. Thieves and pimps may well still run free, but The Lumineers are proof positive that the times are a changin’, and maybe for the better.
So on the show this Thursday we’ll see what all the fuss is about, plus our Undercover Writer John Prine, live with LAU and tracks from Joshua James, Robin Adams, Band Of Horses and many more. Join us live from 10.05pm on BBC Radio Scotland.