Pop in 2013 - Under the influence

What to listen out for this year.

These days, pop music appears to exist in three distinct worlds: young people’s, older people’s and the soul revival – a genre remarkable because a) it won’t go away and b) people download it for free and buy the CDs in just about equal measure. The ways in which we measure “big” in music today – and what that even means – are only just emerging. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” was Spotify’s most-played song in 2012 (he’d have got about $0.009 each time) but the music press hardly touched him. Last January, the retro-soul singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka was named BBC’s Sound of 2012 by a group of industry heads but no one was talking about him by the end of the month. And we were all fed up with the concept of Lana Del Rey by the time the “physical” came out.

So grim are the results of showing too much too soon that new bands hide on the internet, generating heat by their lack of presence, racking up hundreds of thousands of hits before they’ve even got a press shot to supply. Savages and Palma Violets, two post-punk internet buzz bands yet to release their debut albums, courted anonymity in the early stages by ensuring that they hardly had anything on YouTube. The Glaswegian electro-pop trio Chvrches (one of an increasing number of young bands namechecking Prince as an influence) wrote one of the best songs of last year – “The Mother We Share” – and they’ll have an album out at some point but it remains to be seen whether people will be still excited when they’re signed.

Elton John has already been seen at a gig by the Strypes, a capable child band from Ireland who do a kind of rollicking, Cavern-era Beatles and early Stones show with two mouth organs – a redefinition of “R’n’B” for 14-year-olds.

As far as teens are concerned, there’s also Haim, three sisters from the San Fernando Valley in California who grew up in their parents’ rock band. They sing like more light-hearted versions of Florence Welch, look like Joan Jett and sound not a million miles from Eighties Fleetwood Mac. It’s kids’ music but there’s something really heartening about watching them attack old sounds as though no one’s ever been there before.

Last year, Emeli Sandé was a reasonably interesting proposition because she came from behind the scenes – she’d been part of the X Factor songwriting team. This year, A*M*E (aged 19, real name Aminata Kabba) is another antidote to the production-line methods of modern R’n’B. Her song “Beautiful Stranger” was a number-one hit for the South Korean girl group f(x); she’s signed to Gary Barlow’s label; she’s also co-written with Sandé – and while this is all just another way of saying she’s been hanging around the industry for a few years, it doesn’t matter because her music is tremendous fun: south London post-Gaga pop permeated with Pokémon aesthetics, like a Game Boy version of Rihanna or Azealia Banks, Gangnam-style.

In this postmodern age, the musicians who stand out are those manipulating multiple influences, not just pastiching one or two. The Toronto rapper the Weeknd is a well-finished concept, with his Jackson-airy voice and raw psychodramas – the critics’ll probably try to call him the new Frank Ocean.

And one of the most distinctive sounds comes from Laura Mvula, a “classically trained” singer-songwriter from a gospel background who laughs in the face of structure and draws from the well of Amy Winehouse, Jill Scott and Rodgers and Hammerstein. She did all her string arrangements on GarageBand, and then her producer dropped a real orchestra in. Young people today, and so on.

Last year was dominated by the rock veteran and it’s hard to imagine what more they can do now that Keith, Neil and Pete have done their autobiographies, the Stones have marked their half-century and Paul McCartney has done Kurt Cobain for a night. Aerosmith – the American Stones, who’ve been together for 40 years, with Steven Tyler, like Keith, still baffling people with his ability to perform despite years of well-documented self-pickling – will tour Europe in 2013 (a very rare event) and Bruce Springsteen will take his Wrecking Ball tour all over the world, minus sax solos.

Then there’s Björk, who will be performing her ingenious Biophilia album in a circus tent in Paris for six dates in February and March. It’s a show so magical and meaningful, its value will only increase over time.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman’s pop critic

Björk will be performing her Biophilia album in a circus tent in Paris for six dates in February and March. Photograph: Getty Images

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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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