Right now, the internet is saturated with new music. Touring is becoming increasingly harder thanks to surging living costs and complicated new Brexit rules. Everyone, apart from the biggest artists (and even they’re not safe), could do with a helping hand right now. So why, then, are some acts trying to put down both bands accepting a leg up, and those artists using their platform to pay it forward to those for whom these opportunities could make all the difference to?
Last week (October 22), The Skinner Brothers’ Zac Skinner caused a stir online when he tweeted: “I see all these bands going on tour with Louis Tomlinson from @onedirection… fucking laughable. I wouldn’t ever do that on account of it being incredibly LAME.” It reeked of old-school snobbery, implying that because Tomlinson was once a member of the biggest British pop group in recent history, being associated with him was something to be ashamed of.
In a follow-up tweet a couple of days later, Skinner doubled down on his position, comparing him hypothetically supporting the former 1D member to “The Clash supporting Madonna”. His one-minute rant about the “sterilisation” of guitar music felt dangerously close to throwing out the term “real music”.
Regardless of what you think about Tomlinson’s music – past or present – his consistent support of the UK’s underground scene is nothing but admirable. Although, as he told NME earlier this summer, keeping up with all the new music around these days is tough, he’s always armed with recommendations to share with his followers online when they ask for tips. He’s regularly given new and smaller bands support slots on his tours and at his Away From Home festival. He’s even helped out other acts financially when they’ve needed it the most, like when Manchester band Maruja had their gear stolen from their van. Last October, after they reached £2,000 on a crowdfunder to replace the instruments, Tomlinson quietly dropped £4,000 their way, helping them reach their target.
“We were absolutely blown away,” singer and guitarist Harry Wilkinson tells NME of the surprise contribution. “Honestly, we’d probably still be trying to get our gear right now. We’ve made a lot of progress [as a band] this year and, without Louis’ help, we definitely wouldn’t be able to be in the position we’re in right now.” The items Maruja had stolen were things they’d been collecting “all our lives”, including “really rare pedals” they’d likely have struggled to get back at all.
Doncaster band The Outcharms have also experienced the benefits of Tomlinson’s support. In April, they were asked to open for him at his big homecoming gig at Doncaster Dome Leisure Centre, but had been in touch with him for about a year before that. “He got in touch on Twitter saying one of his management showed him the band,” singer and guitarist Curtis Cooper explains. “We were going back and forth and exchanging phone calls for a year.”
Getting the chance to perform at that gig was “massively valuable” for the band, giving them the opportunity to not only play the biggest venue they’ve appeared in so far, but also putting them in front of a captive audience from all over the world. “We’ve played most venues in Doncaster, but that wasn’t like being in our hometown,” Cooper says. “People from Venezuela and Brazil and all over the world descended on our little town. It was mad. As soon as we walked on, they just started screaming – we’d not even played a note of music, we could have been absolutely terrible! But they were really supportive.”
“Louis has got everyone talking – and smaller bands have benefitted from it greatly” – Curtis Cooper, The Outcharms
That open-minded reaction to bands is something that feels common within Tomlinson’s fanbase. When each band took to the stage at this year’s Away From Home festival in Málaga, the crowd cheered on every band as enthusiastically as each other – from newcomers like Scottish band Voodoos, who won a competition to kick off the day’s events – to indie legends The Vaccines. It was incredibly heartwarming to see, particularly given this was a crowd of predominantly female fans – a force that has shaped pop culture for decades.
Most mentions of fandoms and stan culture these days are barbed and negative, pointing to ever-growing toxicity online. While that is accurate of some people, Tomlinson’s fans have largely reacted to The Skinner Brothers’ comments in a way that make the London act’s point even more redundant. On Twitter, fans have been collating a playlist of unsigned and upcoming bands – some with ties to Tomlinson, others without – and, in turn, giving those artists more much-needed exposure. “He’s got everyone talking and smaller bands have benefitted from it greatly,” Cooper concedes of Skinner’s original tweet, smiling at the irony.
Community spirit – from Tomlinson’s fans, from artists with a platform they can use – is becoming more and more important as the cost of living in the UK explodes. Financially, rising bands are feeling the strain more than ever, limiting their ability to play as extensively as they once might have been able to. “It’s expensive – you spend so much money on fuel and staying in hotels and everything,” explains Wilkinson.
“You’re trying to grow an audience [through touring] so you can start making money,” Maruja saxophonist and singer Joe Carroll adds. “But you’re having to say no to shows because it’s not gonna be worth the journey – you’re not gonna sell many tickets, it’s not in a city you’ve been able to perform in before, and it’s gonna cost loads to even be able to get there. Having support slots with bigger artists is a great way of growing those things.”
For The Outcharms, not only has opening for Tomlinson given them a rise in interest in the band, including an uptick in monthly listeners online, it’s also helped them see their musical endeavours in a different light. “The mentality of the band has changed – it just gave us a little bit more belief and [and made us open to] taking more risks,” Cooper says. Earlier this month, the group played their biggest headline show to date in the main room at legendary Sheffield venue The Leadmill. “Eventually we would have got to that point, but I don’t think we would have made that leap [before].”
Tomlinson’s dedication to lifting up new bands comes from a place of pure passion. Speaking to NME at Away From Home in August, he cited one of his reasons for starting the festival as wanting to “showcase upcoming bands”. “I’ve always been really interested in the development stage of bands’ careers,” he said. “I think they’re some of the most exciting times. So any way where I can help anything like that, that’s always been really important to me.”
Those who’ve received Tomlinson’s support so far are in agreement that his approach to music should be the norm. “If you’re an artist, you want to see art evolve,” reasons Wilkinson. “I think it’s definitely important once you get to a certain level or a certain amount of status to push for more opportunities [for smaller artists]. The more of that, the better.” Instead of belittling artists for their backgrounds or not sticking to the boundaries we used to put around different genres, we should be celebrating those who are willing to help uplift the whole scene, not just themselves – lord knows we need more of that right now.