Rock music isn't evil - it's the rock star myth that creates men like Ian Watkins

Music journalist and author Ben Myers has been doing some soul searching on the day the former Lostprophets singer was sentenced to twenty-nine years imprisonment plus a further six on licence for crimes including several counts of sexually abusing childr

The sentencing of former Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins today to twenty-nine years imprisonment plus a further six on licence for crimes including several counts of sexually abusing children hopefully brings an end to what some police officers have described as the most horrific case of child abuse they have worked on, and by far the most disturbing criminal trial associated with British rock music.

For all it aesthetic flirtation with the dark side and its well-worn sex and drugs rhetoric, a case like this is rare – unprecedented, in fact - in the home-grown rock scene. I’d even argue that there is a playful innocence to many of its posturing bands. Far less sex, drugs and fisticuffs than I’ve seen at some British town centres taxi ranks at 2am. I know some lovely Satanists and have enjoyed many intellectually-invigorating encounters with men and women who scream about death for a living.

Which is why many of my colleagues in the music business who have had close dealings with Watkins and his band have been doing some deep soul-searching. Are all of us who contribute to the myth-making business of music somehow indirectly culpable for creating a world in which simple musicians are deified?

My own contact with Watkins has been limited to phone conversations and some innocuous online exchanges. But I have spent plenty of time close-up with some of rock’s bigger figures – Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Jimmy Page, Mötley Crüe, Marilyn Manson, Slash and recent wayward artists such as Pete Doherty and the late Amy Winehouse - and am almost always struck by the same observation: these are ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. They are not demigods, and nor should they be portrayed as such. Treat them as normal and they will generally respond accordingly. Pander to their inflated egos and they might just take advantage.

“Today mythical thinking has fallen into disrepute,” notes Karen Armstrong in A Short History Of Myth, and post-Watkins, there are certainly questions to be raised about why lifestyle excesses and preening, red-blooded rock stars have been historically celebrated in rock music. The big difference today is that these mythological creatures of yore are no longer absent, unobtainable figures. As Watkins has proven in the most diabolical ways imaginable, they are only ever a tweet or webcam away.

When 47 year old Bill Wyman started dating 13 year old Mandy Smith there was tabloid outrage but little in the way of legal action. When Led Zeppelin took advantage of young fans they were not brought to account, but instead lionised. They were portrayed as heroes. Was Ian Watkins, the nadir of the indulged rock star, somehow “allowed” to hide in plain view, exploiting the susceptible without impunity? “There are so many rumours about me,” he said in an interview with Kerrang! in 2010. “The more shit that’s out there, the bigger the smokescreen and the harder it is to tell what’s actually true.”

Academically gifted and believed to be a reader of de Sade, perhaps he saw himself as some sort of de Sade/Gilles de Rais figure pushing the limits of morality. The same interview was littered with prescient phrases such as “I’ve taken down all the rules in my life,” and “I’m not just talking about substances, I mean everything ... just opening up to being like ‘come what may’ is so liberating”. Hindsight now tells us that the previously drink and drug-free Watkins was not merely alluding to his recent dalliances with class A drugs.

One unnamed girlfriend told Wales Online: “I’m not sure if he was born a paedophile. He said it got boring having 16-to-20 year-olds throwing themselves at him.” Another of his ex’s – and the main whistle-blower in his case - Joanne Mjadzelics has noted that there is an irrefutable difference between enjoying what she has called “adventurous sex” and becoming what the judge called “a determined and committed paedophile”. Taking to one paper Mjadzelics said “I’m absolutely sure Ian wouldn’t have stopped at abuse. He wanted to rape and kill children. He wanted to rape newborns.”

Statements such as these suggest that though Watkins’ occupation facilitated the abuse - increased access meant a swifter escalation in severity - he may have been an abuser anyway. Perhaps rock music is no more to blame than drugs, social networking or the writings of de Sade, but yet simply dismissing Watkins as evil however is doing criminology and psycho-analysis a disservice.

One suspects ego, money, greed, access to extreme pornography, a talent for manipulation and coercion, and a narcissistic and/or  psychopathic personality all played some part in Watkins committing these heinous crimes. 

The rest perhaps only he could explain. Certainly today is rock music’s darkest day.

“I’ve taken down all the rules in my life” Watkins said in 2010. Photograph: Getty.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times