Poor Speech Debelle – her current UK tour is proving as much of a draw as a Jack Tweed prison visit. At a recent gig in Sheffield, the south London rapper performed her breezily inoffensive urban vignettes for the benefit of 50 people. 50! I’ve seen Palladium gigs that were better attended than that.
The lack of interest is puzzling, because Debelle’s debut album ‘Speech Therapy’ won the Mercury the other week, an honour which traditionally guarantees at least a few months of elevated profile. And it’s not as if she wasn’t showered with press in the wake of her win. The day after, we interviewed her in NME, as did every news organisation this side of Al-Jazeera, and even they probably did a quick “…and finally”.
By contrast, the record-buying public practically shrugged its shoulders out of its sockets. Sales of ‘Speech Therapy’ leapt by 4000%, according to Amazon, which sounds impressive until you learn that the album had sold fewer than 3000 copies in the preceding three months. And even that fleeting sales spike was not enough to propel the album into the Top 60.
So what happened?
The simple explanation is that the judges picked an artist who, no matter how likeable, and no matter how heartstring-tugging her backstory, simply doesn’t have any memorable songs. Consequently, TV and radio refused to get behind the Mercury decision – possibly out of sheer bafflement more than any commercially-minded resistance to her music – and so the buzz fizzled out no sooner than it had been ignited.
But there is another possibility: the record-buying public doesn’t actually listen to the media anymore. The hype machine (as opposed to The Hype Machine) no longer works. Another example? The Beatles Remasters sold well – but the numbers weren’t as titanic as you’d imagine from the full-spectrum tsunami of coverage that heralded their release. The expected dominance of the chart did not materialise: none of the retooled albums sold more in the week of release than Vera Lynn.
And U2? The World’s Biggest Band, according to every pliant rock hack flown out for an audience with Bono and his giant claw? Their last album bombed in the US, and their 360-degree tour has not yet broken even.
So who is at the top of the charts right now? Singles-wise, it’s auto-tuned R&B/electro hunk Taio Cruz, with ‘Break Your Heart’. Cruz hasn’t had any press exposure, unless you count guest-editing the Daily Star’s The Biz column, and that’s really less useful promotion, more a weird and laborious punishment. And at number two? Why, it’s that ubiquitous darling of the music press, er, David Guetta.
These artists are by no means under-the-radar: they exist in a world of ringtones, music TV, club PAs, social networking. They just don’t appear in the print media, because they don’t need to.
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This in turn gives rise to a curious situation whereby it’s perfectly possible to never even hear the UK’s Number One record, unless you actively seek it out. Which is an unsettling sensation for those of us who grew up in an era where the big-hitting chart music of the day was literally inescapable.
Today, the network that made that possible – Top Of The Pops, Radio 1 – has splintered into a thousand different specialist outlets. The modern media is atomised: you like what you like, ignore the rest. Fire up your favourites on Spotify, make a playlist, allow Last.FM to recommend music that’s similar to what you already enjoy.
Is that a good thing? Not really. The joy, for me, was always in the daft incongruity, in watching “your” band graduate to playing alongside Mariah Carey, watching Manic Street Preachers rub shoulders with Haddaway (not literally).
Those kind of absurd/thrilling crossovers no longer happen. Which is depressing news for anyone who’s ever enjoyed the broader drama of pop, the chart placings, no-hit wonders and split-second fads, the cultural noise that transcends a chosen ‘niche’. It’s also unfortunate for Speech Debelle, who might have hoped blanket press exposure would help her flog more than fifty tickets on a Sunday night in Sheffield.