Tuesday, March 02, 2010

I listen to the radio....

So Mark Thompson, the Director General of the British Broadcasting Service, has just announced his plans for the future of the BBC. These proposed changes are “rooted in a clear vision of what the BBC exists to do.” He asserts, at the start of his confused and badly written article in The Guardian, that the BBC’s mission is to “inform, educate and entertain audiences”. So why these particular closures?

One reason that is worth considering is that Mark Thompson doesn’t really like music. Maybe he doesn’t quite understand it, or is unable to put it into any kind of cultural context; after all his background is purely news and current affairs. Not that that in itself is a bad thing but if your entire world view is governed by a focus on news to the exclusion of all other cultural outlets then it does pose a problem.

The rising public anger at the announcement of the planned closures has been led, in the main, by listeners and supporters of 6Music. This should come as no surprise really. The demographic for the average 6Music listener indicates a pretty attractive group for any broadcaster but the problem is there is nowhere else for these listeners to go so of course they will be enraged that the only outlet for music they like is to be closed by a man who appears to have no idea what constitutes contemporary music; and here lies the crux of the matter.

Some have argued that Mr Thompson needed to announce these changes in anticipation of an incoming Conservative government that will be in greater thrall, if that is possible, than the current government to Rupert Murdoch. Red in tooth and claw free marketers, populated in the main by men (invariably men) who enjoyed no real experience of teenage years (pace Cameron & Osborne allegedly) so have no concept of music other than pop music they danced badly to at Young Conservative dances. These people see music, like racial minorities, teenagers and workers, as all the same.

In 2008 the UK music industry was worth £3.6bn, and that’s a whole lot of money. These revenues are generated by musicians playing live, recording music that people with disposable incomes want to go and see. They range from outfits like Slow Club or Tuung through to major artists like Gorillaz and Radiohead. Pop plays a part as well, JLS, Cheryl Cole and other TV created stars all add to the mix; but don’t pretend that these artists are anything other than fictional constructs for the downloaded disposable age. The role music plays in people’s lives is determined by intelligence and creativity. Pop music is, and always will be, a momentary soundtrack to our daily lives but will never hold sway in our memory the way that the poet artist will.

It is argued that the BBC is doing things that could easily be done by the commercial sector. That is an utter bare faced lie. If the BBC was not setting the pace then the commercial sector, as always, would fall back upon lowest common denominator programming. Radio 1 is often held up by those with no idea about how the music industry works as a prime example of “something the private sector could do better”. Unfortunately this is not the case. A quick glance at the playlists for Radio 1 and, say, Capital FM in London should illustrate this point. Radio 1 plays and exposes new pop acts, as well as rock and R&B artists, whereas Capital plays what is already broken and commercially successful; for instance the Black Eyed Peas feature on both their A and C lists. If Radio 1 was privatised then the UK music industry can kiss goodbye to a vehicle for breaking new acts. Commercial radio is all about advertising.

Now on to 6Music. There is no radio station playing the kind of music that 6Music plays, anywhere in this country. They play music for people who maintain a connection with the kind of music that speaks to them of their lives and experiences. People like Thompson cannot see or understand this concept because, though they may pay lip service to “real” music, jazz or classical, anything played on music radio is deemed to be pop. They claim Katherine Jenkins is an opera singer when she has never appeared in an opera, she sings showtunes or their equivalent. If you apply that criteria to drama then Shakespeare carries no more weight than Coronation Street – and those folk who claim that if Shakespeare was alive today he’d be writing for Eastenders are simply wrong – and How Hot Is My Daughter carries as much power as Life!

A part of the BBC’s remit is to stimulate creativity and cultural excellence; doing away with an outlet for creativity and cultural excellence is not the way forward. We are lying to ourselves if we think otherwise. For those of you who seem to believe that the magical private sector will fill this gap then I despair for your gullibility and ignorance. The commercial sector has had this opportunity and has fallen short. Take a look at 6Music’s playlist compared to XFM. The 6Music playlist is drawn from a wide range of labels, many of whom are small independent companies who have no other outlets for exposure; XFM’s playlist in drawn, in the main, from major labels, which is not surprising given who pays for the advertising.

One of the things this country can take pride in is our music industry. Since The Beatles and The Stones kicked it all off we have consistently produced bands, and acts, who have pushed forward the boundaries of music that the rest of the world has struggled to reach. Innovative bands from other countries are usually recognised first in the UK (Kings of Leon, Air, The Velvet Underground) having been played by DJs of the stature of John Peel or Gideon Coe. For many of us the first time we heard acts like Big Youth or Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou were on shows by those two stalwarts of radio. Once they’ve gone we will never get shows like those back again.

Save music: save 6Music.