Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Rites Of Passage: Corporate Festivals and High Street Music Chains.

Music is a passion that develops over the course of your life. You don’t emerge from the womb beat-boxing 5/11ths time to avant-garde free jazz.

Instead there are certain rites of passage, a fact I was reminded of as the Leeds Festival line-up was announced yesterday. To my tired eyes, it appeared predictable, dull and easy. Of the headliners, Biffy Clyro are the weak link; unquestionably ‘huge’, they have yet to transcend to the ubiquitous level of the other two. Evidence? I saw Pointless the other day. They were given as an answer and Xander looked very confused. You can see I am being scientific about this, right?

But Leeds Festival is for the kids. It is a key part of growing up, not just as a person but as a method of expanding your musical taste. The key demographic is the 16 – 21 age bracket, so it makes sense that they start repeating themselves every five or so years. Green Day may seem awfully passé, but I have to remember how important Dookie seemed to me when I was 16 and be glad they are up there, getting young music fans excited, as they did for me.

Co-incidentally, the first festival I went to was Leeds Festival in 2001. Eminem headlined, Green Day were second headliners (behind Travis) but best of all, the first band I ever saw at any festival was Biffy Clyro, who opened the Radio 1 stage at midday (those guys have certainly earned that headlining slot the hard way).

We need those big names up there. It’s about more than the music; it’s the truly awful spectre of brand recognition. V Festival have totally given up the ghost and gone for a celebrity pop bill this year. Leeds Festival only ever did the same thing, but for the more ‘alternative’ demographic.

That’s why we’ve seen Marilyn Manson, Axl Rose, Dave Grohl and the rest up there. Because it is exciting to see famous people on a stage when music is this vast, unknown world - before cynicism takes over. Recognised names are also helpful to attract the other key demographic; passive music fans. People that look at the Leeds Festival line-up and say “I’ve heard of Green Day!” But that’s a whole other story.

The important thing is to accept Leeds Festival as an essential part of developing musical minds. We shouldn’t sneer so much. The festival seems to be in rude health, but what if it disappeared? This is what worries me about HMV, another essential rite of passage.

I don’t go to HMV because they don’t have obscure hand numbered Arab Strap Japanese Import 12” vinyls with signed poster inlays. But when I was a kid, when the possibility of starting my own music collection became an exciting possibility, HMV was amazing. Having it on the high street was perfect; whilst mum plodded laboriously round BHS, I could wander the aisles, soaking in the names and genres and covers.

In contrast, I was in Sound It Out Records in Stockton the other week. It’s a great Indie shop with a strong local following, very friendly staff and a wide range of stock. I was flicking through racks of vinyl amongst other shoppers – all male, all thirty plus – when a teenage girl came in. She looked a little scared, or perhaps just daunted by the make shift style of the shop. She asked to hear a record (Doolittle) and then scuttled away without making a purchase.

Was it too big a step for her? I felt the same the first time I went inside a comic book store. I’d feel it now if I went in an antiques shop. There’s no sign outside the door with a man holding his hand at shoulder height saying ‘You must be this much of a music fan to enter” but it sure can feel that way.

Even if independent music shops benefit from the closure of HMV, are they able to adequately fulfil the role it played in the development of young musical minds? And equally, a shunning of or the disappearance of large scale festivals, as far as they sit from our ethics and preferences, could potentially see a chain reaction that removed the smaller, more niche festivals we enjoy. You could even track this idea back to the disappearance of Top Of The Pops, or Smash Hits magazine. Seemingly tacky, but they were such an important potential Trojan horse into young people’s lives.

Streaming sites and free downloads facilitate the consumption of music, but they don’t cultivate a love and appreciation of it. This is our biggest challenge for the future, one that will be much tougher without these ‘first contact’ moments.

Dean Freeman

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