As part of the Memphis Industries takeover, Field Music discuss the trials and tribulations of building a long term "career" in the music industry. This article was written as a response to Rob Fitzpatrick's article 'When bands fall off cliffs' from The Guardian, 27th October 2011.
"Field Music have been pretty lucky. We’ve kept struggling along without the pressures and expectations placed upon bigger bands. We can function independently from most of the music industry; partly due to geographical isolation and partly due to the principles we’ve determinedly stuck to. I’m certain that Matt and Ollie at Memphis Industries are sometimes exasperated with us but there’s also a strong mutual appreciation which has helped to insulate us from the vagaries of the music business and allowed us to put together a very non-standard, ahem, ‘career’.
The standard version of a successful musical career seems to involve a hyped first (or occasionally second) album followed by steady artistic and commercial decline; at best ending with fortunes diminished but with a reputation as a worthwhile elder statesman. More often it ends on the treadmill of the heritage-indie circuit - possibly lucrative but creatively moribund. It appears to be incredibly difficult to follow a hugely-successful early album with better music and/or greater sales.
A highly successful debut album is usually a result of a confluence of the style and taste of a talented performer or songwriter (though it is often a very moderate talent) with a particular fashion in the wider popular culture. If an artist is a little too far ahead of fashion, then it's possible that neither the music industry nor audiences will acknowledge them and a more easily-categorised or charismatic copyist will reap the eventual rewards.
For a band who have surfed an unexpected wave of fashionability, where can they go next? If the artist tries to follow fashion, they will be dismissed as bandwagon-jumpers. If they try to anticipate fashion, they are more likely to miss than hit. If they’re incredibly determined, perhaps they'll follow their own whim and make the record which suits them, though this is also likely to torpedo the casual sales which distinguish a mega-seller.
Most likely, a band will, under pressure from those whose reputation and bank balances have swelled owing to the band's sales (and from the portion of their audience who aren’t particularly interested in the thrill of an artistic left-turn), seek to 'consolidate'. That is to make another album, very similar to the first with a few rough edges smoothed out and hopefully containing a few radio-ready singles to show they're still hungry for more. As a short-term plan, maybe this is sensible but the tempering of creative drive is usually a sure-fire route to the oldies circuit.
Real commercial success depends on the different parts of the industry collectively agreeing that this success is either necessary or inevitable. This isn’t a conspiratorial process - more a systemic quirk. The music press needs readers (and radio needs listeners) and success brings them. Bigger labels promoting new bands do what they can to convince the industry that success is inevitable. Partly this is done by playing up to the artists' most commercially-attractive tendencies (which, perversely, might by their anti-authoritarian distaste for the music industry) but mostly it’s done by a willingness to flaunt promotional might.
This process is happening constantly. Taste-makers of all stripes are subjected to a conveyor-belt of novel, prodigiously-backed next-big-things. For a second-album-band, it’s not enough to consolidate. What’s really needed to avoid deflation is a big-enough splash to drown out the clamouring for a new next-big-thing, which is why 'consolidation' albums are so often cravenly commercial - bigger choruses, bigger riffs, better haircuts. Unfortunately for them, it’s very hard to hide the glimmer of this cynicism.
It’s also a truism that bands have their entire lives to write their first album. After that, they will have to write more, and more quickly. And as a globe-trotting musician, the experiences they’ll be writing about will likely have less empathic pull. Romanticising life on the road might work for a couple of songs but sympathy runs out quickly. Additionally, the pressure to tour extensively, given the relative earning power in touring over record sales, restricts the amount of time bands spend developing ideas, and pushes bands towards writing music which will have an impact on devoted live followers (anthemic, immediate, repetitive) rather than making interesting records.
The machinations of the music industry don’t generally encourage good music in the long term. We’re lucky to have found a home where our quirks are accepted as a relatively-sensible alternate framework for being a band. Roll on album number seven."
On Wednesday 30th November, "Lucky Thirteen" - a celebration of thirteen years of Memphis Industries - will take place at London's Koko. Memphis are giving away an exclusive 13 track compilation of "past, present and future Memphis Industries tracks" to everyone who buys a ticket.
You can purchase your tickets here.