Wednesday, November 30, 2011

BritPOP

Holler!

No, the title’s not a reference to Britney. My apologies.

Every time I pen a song, I think of British POP stars.  When the result doesn’t sound traditional, I don’t feel upset or peeved, but rather, like an individual. This would most certainly not be the case if I had never been introduced to artists like Marina & the Diamonds, Ellie Goulding, and Paloma Faith, among innumerable others. I consider British music and its consumers (primarily the British public) to be far more open-minded than those who only listen to American radio. The Brits (sorry for generalizing – I’m doing it for the sake of the article) have always loved some American POP tunage, whether it comes from super-creatives like Prince, Michael Jackson, and GaGa, or those who just sing sugary goodness, like Britney and Rihanna.  However, unlike many Americans, they are open to, and aware of, so much more. Their POP charts range from the super commercialized and pre-calculated, written and recorded solely for the purpose of getting your money, to the supremely artistic. They embrace everything, from mindlessly fun POP groups, like The Saturdays, to artists with emotionally intricate lyrics/rhymes, like Plan B (check out Prayin & She Said).  The Brits don't necessarily have better (or worse) taste in music. Its simply wider.

Much of the diversity in the British music scene results from the power and prominence of the BBC.  The UK singles chart is determined solely by sales, but consumers' purchases are obviously influenced by radio airplay.  In the States, the Billboard Hot 100 is assembled using a statistical combination of radio airplay and sales. The stations with the largest influence on the American charts are owned by Clear Channel Communications (i.e. KISS 108 in Boston, Z100 in New York, etc.)  Clear Channel stations tend to play the safe choice - recent chart-topping artists.  When a new artist arrives on the scene, he or she is much more likely to get played if his/her song was composed by/with a hit-maker producer, like Dr. Luke or Stargate (whom we LOVE, but that's beside the point).  Usually, the few alternative artists who make it to the top of the American charts are first played on independent stations, then on Cumulus Media and/or CBS Radio stations (the second and third largest radio conglomerates in the United States, respectively), and finally on Clear Channel stations.

The most recent examples of such rarified occurrences are Adele, with the #1 hits Rolling in the Deep and Someone Like You, and Foster The People, with Pumped Up Kicks, which tapped out at #3. One artist who reintroduced this trend (that ebbs and flows through the years - Nirvana is an example from the early '90s) was Amy Winehouse with Rehab, which peaked at #9. I'm certain that Adele's record label poured blood, sweat, and tears into getting her music onto American radio. (This was despite her second album, 21, debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart based on pure demand built from her internet presence, performances on American television, and awards from her debut, 19.) I doubt it was an easy feat, as she's a singer-songwriter who, aesthetically, doesn't fit the POP star mold, lacks any synths in her music, and works with producers like Paul Epworth, who is renowned in the UK but unheard of by the American radio elite. The fact that her songs are spun is intriguing, particularly because, like Amy, she was unable to get her first album's singles played on Clear Channel's stations. Alternative radio has continuously given her props, and even CBS radio played songs like Cold Shoulder a few years ago, but Adele couldn't quite get the mainstream airplay she deserved from Clear Channel... until now. Amy most likely achieved the feat through similar efforts from her label, as well as the adoration and support of the hip-hop community, which has for the past 10+ years received a great deal of spins from Clear Channel. 

As we all know, corporations set out to make a profit. Therefore, Clear Channel stations play what executives feel will make the most money. Unfortunately, this often leads to a great deal of monotony.  By contrast, the BBC (also a money-making business) is partially state-controlled. It thereby has an additional socio-cultural obligation to promote the arts. In other words, British radio views music not only as a product, but also as an art form.  As a result, artists who are left-field get a fair shot at success in the UK. For example, Florence + the Machine's first single, Dog Days Are Over, off of their debut, Lungs, received a similar amount of BBC 1 radio airplay as that of a mainstream track, like I Kissed A Girl.  This was obviously not the case in the United States.

Some may respond by saying that there are independent American stations playing alternative POP, but these stations are small by comparison. The BBC is the largest, most powerful communications/media company in the UK, so what its stations play has a far greater effect on left-field artists' sales and overall success.  If you've looked at the Top 10 on the UK singles chart this past year, you've seen a lot of variety - everything from American Top 10 staples like Rihanna's We Found Love and Maroon 5's Moves Like Jagger, to Ed Sheeran's The A Team and Charlene Soraia's Wherever You Will Go. Even American artists whose songs don't get their deserved attention stateside, like Christina Perri's Jar of Hearts and Lana Del Rey's Video Games, reached the UK Top 10.

It is worth noting American POPsters whose stars don't shine as bright on American soil.  More and more American artists with a tinge of the alternative are seeking British recording contracts.  POP musicians like The Scissor Sisters, Alex Winston, and Lissie have used this methodology to succeed without compromising their musicality and styles.  Those three bands/artists are completely different from one another, but all have been embraced by British audiences.  However, they've all struggled in America because the biggest key to their success, radio airplay, has been missing.

So is it understandable that Minna subscribes to the BBC to listen to a wider variety of popular music - from dubstep to female singer-songwriters? I think YES.

Unapologetically,

Gregory


(c) Unapologetically POP, 2011

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