The 405 - "B-Town, the industry and hype: The beginnings of an empire or flavour of the month?"


by Timothy Mobbs, Photography by Tim Boddy, 01 November 2012

You may well have heard that Birmingham, now dubbed “B-Town”, is the new home for “everything that is the best ever” and is subsequently enjoying a wave of hype and arguably premature adoration, albeit with good intentions in many quarters. As a local this situation is quite interesting: The guys who now adorn billboards with accompanying messages that not even they really understand, have mostly been doing the same thing for a while now, as have most of their peers – hanging out, going to FACE or propping up the bar at Adam and Eve. So what has changed to catapult these otherwise normal people you’re used to seeing in local bands to the upper echelons of the hype market? Why now? This contingent of new indie heroes have already signed themselves over with an air of confident nonchalance and, with some barely out of college, are thrust straight into crippling European tour schedules and all kinds of ridiculous major label rigmarole, in the hope that at the end of it someone will see a return somehow.

When I happened to find out just how young one of the frontmen was in one of the more well known B-Town bands, I felt ancient having just turned twenty-two. Age aside, what worries me is how little time these bands have had to really get things together: I do genuinely like both Peace and Swim Deep but I sincerely hope that they have more than five decent songs between them besides the obviously great ‘Bblood’ (or ‘BLOODSHAKE’ as it’s now referred to) and ‘King City’. I don’t doubt that they have a lot of potential that could be unlocked given a bit of quality writing and demo time, but the industry is not concerned with sustainable development these days when the blogs move so quickly. It’s been little more than a few months since a band like JAWS tentatively put up a sketchy two track demo on their recently created Facebook page, only to find themselves being sucked into B-Town’s gravitational pull and lured by the A&R men that currently camp out in Digbeth like hyenas, waiting for the first group of guys in Nirvana t-shirts to pass by so they can slap them in a van and get them on to the continent.

The Independent recently trumpeted a huge article on the scene, leading with: “Forget Madchester, it’s all about the B-Town scene” this Saturday and shone a largely positive light on what was going on. What struck me however, was the throwaway tone in the headline alone: “Forget Madchester”. Forget it – it may as well have never happened. Madchester appears to be an inconsequential footnote leading up to this one defining moment. What’s to say that in a short while it won’t be “Forget B-Town, Eastbourne’s Epsilons are the future”? In terms of music’s aim of having a long-lasting emotional impact on the individual it’s more than a little worrying. A little bit of research behind the article would have shown that Corelli, a band who had been around for more than a few years, had split up back in March despite a late surge of promising support slots. For former guitarist, Tommy Greaves, who quickly formed the excellent shoegazing proposition of WIDE EYED soon after Corelli’s dissolution, the difference between the two bands must be difficult to fathom: Slogging away with Corelli for years to no avail and then landing mentions in the NME and national press with WIDE EYED without even trying must be strange to say the least.

Previous trends would suggest that the heat around B-Town will cool soon enough and the industry will move on. Case in point being Oxford’s Blessing Force, who’s presence was exposed to a national audience in a mostly laughable but well-intended NME article from a writer who has since moved on to the sunnier climes of Pitchfork. Although the main difference with Blessing Force is that the majority of bands, also skilled in other artistic fields, were totally committed to their aesthetic and warily kept the salivating execs at arm’s length it’s also worth bearing in mind how many of the people involved had already experienced the highs and lows of the industry: Chad Valley is the solo project of Hugo Manuel, Jonquil’s longtime leader and Andrew Mears of Pet Moon is perhaps better remembered from the influential and sadly missed Youthmovies. It says a lot therefore that both acts have kept both feet firmly on the ground, especially in Hugo’s case: The anticipation for debut album Young Hunger is massive and boasts some heavyweight collaborations but has crucially been built to over a long period of time and thanks to sensible decisions from the man himself.

Interestingly, the only band to very publicly and bizarrely disassociate themselves from the scene were largely heralded as the Force’s brightest hope and ended up as arguably its most notable failure – Fixers. Having been funded to the extreme ends of the hype-o-meter following a jump from Young & Lost Club to the big leagues of Vertigo (Universal), the band enjoyed Live Lounge appearances, high profile touring and the like only to become embroiled in a fascinating and equally shady turn of events that eventually led to them being dumped by Vertigo before their much-anticipated debut, We’ll Be The Moon, managed to see a release. The album did thankfully see the light of day eventually, albeit after a stalling period of a few months that saw a lot of momentum falling off and with considerably less clout, Fixers’ probably hit their lowest point this summer at Truck Festival where the band’s frontman acted like an old unmarried Aunt at Christmas; getting wasted and crying conspiracy at the festival’s audience in the early afternoon. Considering how much things for them must have changed from the New Year until the summer, I honestly can’t blame him. An interview on BBC Oxford Introducing, which took place shortly after they were dropped, betrayed a sense that the band were shell-shocked and they were unable to process being dropped with it all happening so fast.

Having leveled out a little, Fixers look to be in the position of starting over again in Oxford on a smaller label, hopefully with a wealth of valuable experience so as not to get in such a monumental muddle again. It seems more than appropriate that the “new band” who have arguably made the biggest impact this year have been TOY: An act mostly comprised of members who have already endured a painful band life cycle with Joe Lean and his Jing Jang Jong – another casualty of Universal’s pre-debut album release firing squad (Under Mercury, this time).

What I see as the main factor leading up to this heartache is set in motion as the first drop of Bblood enters the water and the blogosphere goes ballistic. All of a sudden a whole school of A&R piranhas swarm out of nowhere and every bit of whatever was wholesome is stripped away merely for their own self-preservation. Where Blessing Force came out largely unscathed they are sadly a rare exception and the Fixers example is the story that seems to be all the more common. The industry, who are so desperate to hit upon the next big thing have managed to decrease the average band’s lifetime to a matter of months in many cases and suddenly a whole infrastructure and hierarchy surrounds my city and the weight of expectation is enough to make Atlas feel sore – all because one demo picked up a few thousand plays on Soundcloud.

Stay with me on this one, but the birth and death of Viva Brother is also hugely worrying. Although everybody was probably too busy giggling behind their twitter feeds at the time, and the band’s style-over-substance approach will always be blamed as though they deserved to fail, but just consider this for a minute: The amount of time between Viva Brother signing by Geffen and then splitting up was less than fifteen months. There have probably been periods of time during which Julian Casablancas hasn’t spoken to the other members of The Strokes that have lasted longer than that.

Bad example? If so, what does big hype online really translate to when a band are taken seriously? The figures rarely equate to cold, hard cash and those with a good memory may remember the massive expectation surrounding Chapel Club following the virality of the track ‘Surfacing’ in early 2010. The eager amongst you may counter with the assertion that the band never took off was because the early campaign flatlined due to licensing issues surrounding the borrowing of lyrics from ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me’, which was effectively a legal ten-foot-thick fire door that quelled a flame that was just starting to spark. But even with major coverage, massive investment and questionably high billing at every major UK festival for a few years running the consumer simply never latched on in big enough numbers to “break” Chapel Club, or at least for Locog to break even. To even approximate the amount of money that must had just been pumped into supporting the Chapel Club campaign makes me feel ill: The transition from seeing the hype peak in February, where around ten A&R mopes from Universal all flocked up to Birmingham on a wet and windy mid-week Valentine’s Day gig just to get a glimpse of these great saviours of moody rock music (let alone get their quivering hands to sign a contract), to April where that same band, now boasting major backing, played to a mostly empty venue in Wolverhampton and then Oxford is unbelievable. Those are just the two shows that I attended.

Official video unavailable in the United States.

Wikipedia reliably informs that Chapel Club “parted ways” with Universal in March 2012, which sounds quite nice really – almost like two old friends going their separate ways. I’d say that two years with them was a pretty good run. So, they managed about nine months more than Viva Brother in the major game, but in this case they were well regarded, if somewhat buried underneath whatever else was going on at the time – Palace, the band’s debut album, achieved good to pretty enthusiastic reviews in most major publications: The BBC referred to it as “vital” and it even received a very strong 8 out of 10 from us lot. What does it say about the state of things when a band manage to release a strong debut and exhibit exciting hints of possible future directions only to be left languishing in the uncertain state of “Unsigned”, last seen pursuing a somewhat ill-advised shift into pop territory?

Outside of the insular world of guitar music, the fascinating case of the hype that destroys its own golden girl was best demonstrated with Lana Del Ray’s online adoration followed swiftly by universal derision. Again, like some of the bands previously referenced, she was perhaps not quite ready to be thrown into the bottom of the ocean in terms of massive promotion that attempted to capitalise on the fast-moving and fickle affections present in the online sphere. The result? The ease of which Del Ray went from blog darling to chart topper struck the disaffected as insincere and nobody really won until Born To Die was deemed “generally a commercial success” (Wikipedia) following a mere two million copies sold – even if the grumbling taps of disappointed keystrokes persisted.

There’s a famous NME review of yore that panned Radiohead as “a lily-livered excuse for a rock band” during the

Pablo Honey era and while the unfortunate writer has had to eat those words ever since, it’s highly likely that if the dreaded blogosphere and its influence had existed at the time we would have all been nodding in agreement and the young band would have been panned universally. It’s not difficult to image the bile of negative YouTube comments reaching a critical level, Radiohead being quietly dropped by Parlophone and Thom Yorke, in a parallel universe, passive-aggressively scribbling Kid A artwork onto the shelves in the pet section of Waitrose. Ah, I hear you cry: “But ‘Creep’ was such a huge success that of course they were kept on by the label!” True, but it’s worth bearing in mind that ‘Creep’ wasn’t exactly an overnight success: It was only until its re-release striking a chord across various other continents that the UK finally caught up and the track charted at number seven, after the best part of a year since its original release. Bands are being signed and dropped right now in that same timespan.

Pablo Honey is perhaps the most average album you could ever hope to hear this side of Travis (oh, and Viva Brother’s Famous First Words) and yet the band were given the opportunity to mature and to blossom into the great symbols of artistic integrity that they are today. This is what I would see as sustainable development and it seems as if bands these days simply aren’t being allowed that platform. While everyone was surprised when The Horrors unleashed ‘Sea Within a Sea’ and went from a bit of a joke to an important band, this kind of turnaround as a result of a secure backing is unfortunately very rare these days. While they may have started as what could be described as Noel Fielding’s backing band, they would definitely have never survived putting this dud out:

What it seems to me is happening in cases such as these is that the hype that emerging bands accumulate by recording demos in their friend’s kitchen, followed by giving them away online that same night is ground to a halt by the major’s procedures: As little as a week passes and whatever was getting emphatically reblogged before is replaced by something else while four or five twenty year olds are being sent down to a huge label headquarters. The bands probably feel it’s time to conquer the world as they crack the champagne open and take photos in the label’s lobby down in London, but they’re dead before they’ve even taken the time to announce it on Facebook.

The irreconcilable issue at the heart of this mess is that B-Town and the industry stand for the complete opposite of each other, but continue to partner up: Obviously the industry’s motive is clear and all the bands are probably aware of many of the potentially disastrous consequences, but surely wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to at least give the whole thing a decent shot. I would argue that it’s never greed that makes bands put pen to paper and it’s more likely in the idealistic hope that they feel that their laid-back, successful and organic approach on a larger scale. The industry would love to provide this, but the traditional method of putting out a record is a bit like persisting with Morse code when the phone lines have been installed: It’s slow, outdated and can’t even begin to keep up with the modern consumer’s voracious appetite. Maybe with the rosy benefit of hindsight it is too easy to reference all the established bands that have come before and were given a chance by a large label and maybe things right now really aren’t as diabolical as this post makes out: After all, who remembers all the bands that were getting dropped before they had a chance to get started ten years ago, let alone twenty or thirty?

If the B-Town scene helps to improve the city’s reputation a little, then that’s terrific: Birmingham has always been massively underrated in the music stakes and I am proud to call it my home for this reason. But the fact is that Birmingham has always had plenty of exciting things occurring and to many right now might even seem like a bit of a lull with the much loved Zombie Prom shutting shop and local heroes, Tantrums, calling it a day not so long ago. Losses aside, the banding together of all the main players that tie together the B-Town scene shows, if anything, that Birmingham is thriving and is just as capable as London, Sheffield, Oxford or anywhere for that matter. Perhaps it’s a protective instinct that is wary of the industry meddling with Digbeth and the familiar haunts of my daily life and it is even condescending to think that these bands are unwittingly walking into the lion’s dead.

But in relation to the industry in general, how anyone can even bother to mention piracy when labels throw away anywhere in the tens of thousands of pounds behind a project like Viva Brother, Chapel Club, Fixers or anyone else is insulting. As a basic business model it is little more than suicidal when the expectation is that there is no return on investment, the band is dropped and left disillusioned by the whole experience and the consumer buying records and going to gigs get maybe one rushed album, if that. Nobody wins, so why does it carry on? The fact that we’re always told so sternly that “the record industry is dying” and being made to feel personally responsible when this unfathomably wasteful process persists means that I will be the last to lament the industry’s long overdue passing.

Courtesy of The 405.