Last month discussion series Table Talks returned with a series of debates on different areas of music and the music industry. Taking place at EMI’s former vinyl press plant in West London, they covered access v ownership in the digital space and the dominance of live music, but kicked off with the question of whether or not popular music still had a cutting edge. Eddy Temple-Morris sat on that opening panel, and here runs through the discussion.
I was recently invited by a dear former colleague from my Radio One days, Emma B, to take part in another Table Talks event, and I jumped at the chance, having loved the first one I did. There’s nothing like a heated debate (perhaps slightly alcohol-fuelled) on a subject you’re passionate about to make for a very entertaining evening.
Here’s how it works: Emma puts forward a motion – “This house believes… [insert divisive statement here]” – and invites a handful of experts or passionate laypeople to speak, listen and discuss, in a loosely ‘Question Time’-style format. The guests each get a few minutes to sum up their reason for opposing or agreeing with the motion, then the audience can have their say too, and after an hour or so of formal discussion everybody carries on chatting, debating and drinking together, good times!
The venue for this particular event (the first in a series of three) was the rather interesting looking Old Vinyl Factory, out near Heathrow, an original EMI building and vinyl pressing plant. And the motion for my debate was: “This house believes that music has lost its cutting edge”. This was inspired by a piece Alexis Petridis wrote for The Guardian, in which he argued, as eloquently as ever, that our popular music has been dumbed down so much by artists like David Guetta or Calvin Harris (his words not mine) and by ‘The X-Factor’ machine, that the edge mainstream music used to have has been dulled to a blunt instrument.
The original plan was for Alexis to sit in on the discussion, but unfortunately he had to cancel at the last minute to go to New York to interview Steve Reich. And I can’t really think of a better excuse for absence than that! Aside from, maybe, injecting Jack Daniels with Motley Crue or playing Scrabble with Everything Everything. But Emma still managed to put together a panel of really interesting people to speak. Telegraph music critic Bernadette McNulty; David Westlake, a music academic from the nearby Brunel University who was signed to Creation in the 80s; and Twin B, presenter of the 1Xtra Breakfast Show and boss of the Levels Ent record label.
Emma always opens with a sharply written intro speech, looking at both sides of the argument and this time also quoting from Alexis’s original essay, which set the pace perfectly. Then she came to me (gulp) to open up, and this is, loosely, what I said…
First off, just because something is successful doesn’t automatically make it bad, or artificially hollow, it’s just popular. And whilst I concede that popular music can be vacuous, empty, cynical and artistically or morally bankrupt, more often than not even weak pop has its roots in an underground movement that was, at its inception, innovative and exiting.
That movement then becomes popular – either as the purveyors of it achieve commercial success, or the manufactured pop machine adopts the new style – but even if it loses its edge in the process, dig deeper and you’ll find more rewarding music, whether that be what came immediately before, or what is happening right now out of the spotlight that will influence the pop of tomorrow.
Remember, the DJ Fresh that has had several number one hits recently, and who gave us both dubstep and drum n bass’s first ever chart toppers, is the same DJ Fresh who was in the seminal dnb crew Bad Company. And Example would also be a great, um, example of this. Sorry, couldn’t resist that!
The original Petridis article that sparked this debate focused on the likes of David Guetta and Calvin Harris as being partially responsible for the blunting of pop music’s edge. But remember, in both cases these guys began as innovators. Granted Guetta’s music is pretty uninspiring now, but he started off in the underground world of clubs. And I can still remember playing a decent Bowie bootleg of his on my Xfm show when he was at club level.
And as for Calvin, while he may now be part of the establishment, he paid his dues through the clubs with his first album, and his production skills are phenomenal. There are sounds on his last album that even the most cutting edge sonic envelope pushers didn’t come up with. Calvin also plays guitar, bass, keyboards and percussion as well as programming and producing everything you hear on his records. Jesus, I’m not sure even Prince did all that, did he? You know, I won’t hear a bad word about the big man so let’s move on.
The fact is this: Newton’s law of physics dictates that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so for every dollar chasing disco-diva like Guetta, there’s an Owsey, who produces beautiful electronic music and gives everything away on his Facebook page. In fact, for every Guetta I’d give you a hundred Owseys! And while these guys may not be making pop music, or be part of the popular music scene, they are the cutting edge music makers who are quietly influencing the pop of tomorrow.
This theory also works with record labels. Despite what you might have read, the music industry is not dying. The Death card in Tarot doesn’t mean literal death, it means change, flux, renewal, and from where I’m looking the UK record industry is in great shape. The major music companies may control the commercial pop machine, like they always have, but they are heavily influenced by the more innovative indies, like they always have been. And the indie sector is looking more vibrant now than for a long time from where I’m standing.
Not so long ago there were only a cluster of indie labels, and the huge behemoth record companies employed almost everyone who was in the business of music. Now we have hundreds and hundreds of boutique labels, run by passionate, knowledgeable people, in it for the right reasons, and giving their artists the freedom they need, and I believe this is key to creativity and the continuance of a cutting edge in music. There must now be, pound for pound, more people in the business of making, releasing, publishing and marketing of music than ever before. Most of them scraping by, but making enough to be OK and doing a job they LOVE. That’s heart warming.
But, you might say, ‘The X-Factor’, has that not contributed to the dumbing down of our musical culture? Well of course, ‘X-Factor’ is pure, concentrated evil, a distillation of the worst parts of the music business, combined with a Victorian freakshow. But its very existence is inspiring! Because those at the cutting edge always need something to rebel against, to contrast themselves with, and in the 21st Century that’s the Simon Cowell phenomenon.
We go back to Newton’s law. The flipside of the ‘X-Factor’ was best embodied, for me, and many others by one event: the campaign that got Rage Against The Machine to Christmas number one in 2009. Most genuine music loving people, galvanized by an Xfm listener and photographer, Tracey Morter, and her husband Jon, from Essex, bought a cutting edge 90s rap/rock crossover record that year and sent a clear and bright signal to Cowell that he couldn’t take Christmas number one for granted with the gob-shite he was peddling. Does that sound like a nation that’s lost its edge?
The fact that one year later a whole bunch of alternative musicians from Unkle to Enter Shikari got four minutes and thirty three seconds of SILENCE into the Top 20, with remixes by people like Mr Scruff and Fake Blood, was surely enough proof that the cutting edge is still very much alive and in good hands: OUR hands. And remember, these campaigns resulted in Cowell withdrawing from the Christmas number one race completely! The cutting edge won.
So there you have it – you might not find a cutting edge in the pop music that’s pushed into your face, but dig behind and below it and the edge is still there. With my thoughts shared, and an encouraging ripple of applause from the audience, my other panellists shared their views.
Twin B gave his perspective as 1Xtra Breakfast host and independent music supporter (he signed Wretch 32 to his label). He talked a lot about “the journey” artists make, adding that the journey usually starts underground and hopefully then connects to a wider audience later, echoing my DJ Fresh point above. He also talked about the realistic necessity to “lose the edge” in order to gain a bigger audience, which was interesting to hear in the context of 1Xtra.
“They said we had to lose it because not enough people were listening”, he said of the BBC’s attitude to the station. It’s fascinating, to me, that the BBC are still obsessed with audience share, especially on a service like 1Xtra. Dear Auntie, that’s not the point. You’re supposed to plug the gaps and provide an alternative, 1Xtra has turned into Radio 1, and R1 is already urban obsessed. Surely 1Xtra should be more like an urban 6music? But I digress – see what I mean? These debates make you want to chat!
David Westlake, meanwhile, interestingly focussed on what “the cutting edge” actually means and said it was more to do with the utilisation of the latest technology than the finished sound, therefore that dance music is where you’d generally expect to find this cutting edge.
The most thought provoking speech, though, probably came from Bernadette McNulty, who laced a delightfully elegant and thoughtful argument together, in part arguing that the speed with which the mainstream now picks up on innovations in the underground has negatively impacted on ‘edge’. She said: “Music has gone from youth cult to a leisure pursuit for everybody, so there’s no edge, because there’s no centre, and because there’s no centre there’s no confrontation any more”.
She continued, fascinatingly: “Edginess is now limited to an aesthetic, so someone will come up with a sound, and that sound will be almost instantly be appropriated, just bought, by a Taylor Swift, before it’s had time to grow and develop naturally, things get sucked into the mainstream too quickly. The edge has been hijacked by fashion, so you can buy an edgy look in Top Shop before that look grows to mean something”.
Told you this was good! Makes me want to read the Telegraph more. She then got to the arrowhead of her point, saying: “It’s interesting that politics is now the missing ingredient from youth culture, aside from Nihilism – the London Riots were naked materialistic lust (in the absence of any real rage) – because everything else has been appropriated”. Her last sentence was chilling, in a way: “The most radical thing you can do right now is to drop off the grid and NOT listen to any music at all”.
I talked to her afterwards and, smiling, she tweaked that to “except for music you made yourself… or possibly live music, but that’s it!” Speaking of which, at that point a talented local musician called Sabiyha did a really impressive acoustic performance for all gathered.
All in all, it was a fascinating debate and I’d recommend Table Talks to anyone as a great night out, especially in these times where people interact so much digitally, instead of using the good, old fashioned eyeball to eyeball method. You can’t beat a good table to bang with like-minded souls and a wee dram in your hand.
What I took away with me was a sense that “The Cutting Edge” is more than the dictionary definition. It’s more a state of mind, and it’s a state that we must hold dear, encourage and support. It’s the oxygen in our musical blood and what keeps people like us alive and well.