You’ve seen the statistics – the music industry as we know it isn’t looking well. It’s haemorrhaging revenue from physical media sales, and digital sales aren’t growing fast enough to stem the bleeding. At this point, all eyes are on streaming services to post robust growth. If the music industry thought it could subsist off its superannuation fund of dad-rock legacy acts, it would probably try to.
Meanwhile, the way in which music is being created is changing too. Big brands are going to increasing lengths to win the hearts and minds of consumers by bankrolling projects with some of your favourite (and least favourite) artists.
What the recorded music industry of the future looks like may be unclear, but this tension between commerce and creativity has been the muse of some of the most interesting music of 2014.
First, let’s look at Babymetal, a gloriously insane collision of J-pop and metal performed by three Japanese singer–dancers, all recruited from the ranks a squeaky-clean teen pop group. Babymetal feels distinctly like the product of a flagging industry desperate enough to manufacture groups made up of disparate combinations of styles until something clicks.
In the case of Babymetal, it is a resounding click: so far, the group has collected 53 million channel views on YouTube, a testimonial from goregrind icons Carcass and an imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery moment when K-pop outfit Pritz appeared in a music video sporting remarkably similar red and black costumes.
Here’s a little background: it’s not uncommon in Asian pop music for groups to split into ‘sub-units’, smaller or reconstituted versions of existing groups calibrated to conquer new markets. Many of these decisions are based on fairly pragmatic business insights. For example, 2008 saw 13-piece K-pop juggernaut Super Junior spawn sub-unit Super Junior-M to take on Korea’s neighbouring Mandopop market, while 140-piece J-pop outfit AKB48 is now so unwieldy that it can be divided into no fewer than seven sub-units.
Babymetal, on the other hand, was created when the group’s founder, a producer known professionally as 'Kobametal’, hit upon the idea of fusing bankable Japanese idol music with his abiding passion for metal. The story goes that Suzuka Nakamoto (now known simply as 'Su-metal’) of teen J-pop outfit Sakura Gakuin auditioned for the formative group, and was invited to lead it. Su-metal was joined by Moa Kikuchi (Moametal) and Yui Mizuno (Yuimetal), also from Sakura Gakuin, and the sub-unit now known as Babymetal was formed.
While Babymetal is noteworthy for its stylistic novelty, the logistics of the group’s formation were nothing if not music business as usual. In an interview with Japan’s Nexus magazine Kobametal matter-of-factly describes the group’s genesis: “I made a business plan, made presentations, managements showed some interest, and it began.”
The end product is more compelling than the output of so many uninspired garage bands, bedroom producers and SoundCloud rappers in 2014.
But here’s the kicker: the end product is more compelling than the output of so many uninspired garage bands, bedroom producers and SoundCloud rappers in 2014. The group has gone on to launch a thousand social media debates ('Is this metal?’; 'What is metal?’) and as many think pieces. (The Guardian alone has published three in the space of the last nine months.)
At Babymetal’s New York City performance this year, I arrived at the Hammerstein Ballroom venue to find a queue that stretched around three sides of the Manhattan Center, nearly eating its own tail, Ourobos-style.
Before the performance began there was a grand prologue (prologue!) scrolling up the big screen explaining Babymetal’s fairly involved backstory. The performance itself was by turns brutal, cloying and completely undeniable. The punters were a heady mix of neckbeards and curious scenesters. There were pyrotechnics.
Against the odds, the group has also managed (to some degree) to win over metalheads, a notoriously elitist and irony-averse subculture. (No small feat for a band whose formation was predicated on generating a return on the investment of Japan’s fourth-largest record label.) A look at Babymetal’s Facebook photo albums uncovers tour shots taken with representatives of metal institutions like Slayer, Metallica and (of course) Carcass – a vital imprimatur.
And, to Babymetal’s credit, svengali Kobametal’s enthusiasm for metal appears to come from a genuine place: when you see Babymetal live, the trio’s backing band really swings for the fences with a taut performance that is nearly as uncompromisingly metal as the songs themselves are uncompromisingly pop.
If the hybrid vigour of Babymetal is the by-product of market pressures on the music industry, then the UK’s PC Music label is providing the running commentary on the union of commerce and creativity.
Headed up by producers A. G. Cook and SOPHIE, the oddball, modish, loosely affiliated electronic music label (collective? Project? Lifestyle?) has a trademark, polarising aesthetic and sound. The aesthetic: pastel colours; web 1.0 charm; high-gloss 3D models; anime. The sound: your art school friend is channeling Eiffel 65, with the help of the percussion section from Slipknot, and it’s all remixed by Aphex Twin.
Despite being fascinated with the idol culture that created Babymetal in Japan (SOPHIE has worked with J-pop crossover star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu), many PC Music artists are notoriously cagey about their own identities and look to subvert and obfuscate the notion of stardom wherever they can. And, so far, they’ve done a very good job of staying anonymous.
Despite SOPHIE’s name, and regular use of vocal samples in a typically female register, SOPHIE is probably not a woman. If you’re curious, NPR have uploaded a photo& captioned'SOPHIE & A. G. Cook perform at the Hype Hotel during SXSW 2014’, but, if PC Music has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.
Another hallmark of their work is that, until recently, the label’s output hasn’t been monetised. In a largely unprecedented development, November saw PC Music affiliate Hannah Diamond release a single on iTunes that you can buy as an mp3 for honest-to-God currency.
This commitment to keeping things uncommercial makes recent single 'Hey QT’ particularly interesting. The track is ostensibly a collaboration between SOPHIE, A. G. Cook and rising star, singer QT. It comes complete with a stand-alone website that riffs on the increasingly blurred line between 'art as commerce’ and 'commerce as art’ by masquerading as a piece of content marketing promoting a product that doesn’t actually exist.
In fact, QT herself may or may not exist.
In fact, QT herself may or may not exist. Sure, she’s a real, corporeal person, but is it her voice on the track? What’s her story? To help clarify (but not really), the team issued this statement alongside the single:
“So what, or who, is QT? She’s a sparkling future pop sensation — albeit one who is set to warp and stretch the notion of what a pop star actually is. It’s a drink, or more precisely a brand new Energy Elixir (‘where organic and synthetic meet to stimulate an uplifting club sensation’). And it’s a song, a moment—‘Hey QT’—which sees these two producers pushing their sound to its very extreme and creating a future anthem in the process.”
It’s hard not to see this as a playful take on the efforts of content marketing giant Red Bull. (If you recall, they sell an energy drink – when they’re not making niche music documentary series.) What brands like Red Bull want to do is create things that people actively enjoy and share with friends. Which is what QT wants with the irrepressible 'Hey QT’, except, in this case, the overzealous singer is laying the sales pitch on a little thick.
Because the core players in PC Music are the most diligent brand enforcers this side of Nike, this canon runs throughout all of QT’s (sparingly granted) communications with the media. In an interview with Fact magazine, the singer describes her instructions to 'Hey QT’ producers SOPHIE and A. G. Cook as the following: “heavy repetition of the word ‘QT’ for marketing purposes and an uplifting club sensation to back it up”. It all seems like a canny skewering of brands that go a little heavy-handed with the 'marketing’ half of 'content marketing’, forget to make compelling content, and end up looking transparent and pushy.
Reflecting on all of this, is it a sobering thought that some of the most exciting music of 2014 was either the product of freak market-based natural selection (Babymetal), or from looking to content marketing for inspiration (PC Music)? Does it imply a future where grassroots, 'authentic’ creativity has abdicated to the content schedules of major labels and monolithic brands?
Musicologist Keith Negus doesn’t think so. In his article 'Where the mystical meets the market: creativity and commerce in the production of popular music’ from The Sociological Review he draws on his own music industry experience to reject the idea that the relationship between music and money must be discussed as a “binary oppositional manner”. While he acknowledges classical Marxist reservations that the major label structure only corrupts art and exploits artists, Negus describes what he sees a complex interplay between commerce and creativity, which are as both more aligned in their goals, and more mundane, than people tend to assume.
So, while the music and branded content industries work out their place in the world of future, we get treated to some endlessly discussable headline magnets, like Babymetal (“Deal With It, Headbangers — Babymetal Is Here,” says NPR) and the beatmakers who orbit the PC Music label (“PC Music: Are They Really the Worst Thing Ever to Happen to Dance Music?” asks Noisey).
It’s a bit like what the wilfully gormless press release for QT’s Energy Elixir says: that awkward place where notions of commerce and notions of creativity overlap has the potential to be a place “where organic and synthetic meet to stimulate an uplifting club sensation”.
This essay originally appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 15, Issue 2.