It was Leicester winning the league. Scorsese bagging an Oscar. Me completing a quordle. Watching Frank Turner accepting his oversized cookie cutter of an award for hitting Number One for the first time with his new album ‘FTHC’ this week was a moment of heart-warming vindication, not just for him and his supporters but for anyone struggling to finish their pandemic novel, buy a PS5 or cancel their Facebook.
Despite it being a piece of advice that’s impossible to take seriously from someone who’s life went so wrong they ended up as a careers advisor, it turns out that with enough hard work and commitment, anything actually is possible.
‘FTHC’, you see, is Frank Turner’s ninth album. The culmination of 2,585 gigs over 17 solo years, starting at clubs and squat parties and building to arenas: the archetypal story of slogging every mile of the long road to success. And he’s not alone in recent years in inching his way to the top. The Wombats made Number One in January on album five, ‘Fix Yourself, Not The World’, almost two decades on from forming. Architects also made their debut at the top of the album charts with their ninth album ‘For Those That Wish To Exist’ last year. Mogwai achieved their first Number One album the week before, after 27 years down the bottomless post-rock mineshaft. And, as we speak, Sea Power, a band two decades old, are leading this week’s album chart race with their eighth album – and first potential chart-topper – ‘Everything Was Forever’.
You might argue that such success stories are akin to Atlantis resurfacing. That as the mainstream pop fans rely increasingly on streaming rather than actual purchases, the solid, long-standing careers they might have swamped in the album charts a decade ago are now beginning to emerge from the depths, tallest and sturdiest first. And you might well have a point. But I’m inclined to believe, also, that we’ve re-entered an era when acts are allowed to develop. That bands are finding it possible to evolve towards their masterpieces. And that there may still be hope for The Jon Spenser Blues Explosion yet.
Many of the biggest acts in the world emerged this way. David Bowie was given free rein to twat about with gnomes, pretend to be a spaceman and go goth before becoming an ‘overnight’ sensation with his fifth album, ‘The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’. Pink Floyd meandered quasi-psychedelically near the top of the charts for seven whole albums before making Musk money by shifting 45 million copies of their eighth, ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’. After their initial success, Fleetwood Mac spent seven albums in the blustery blues wilderness before Buckingham and Nicks turned up to make them the biggest folk rockers in the world. The Bee Gees had been toothsome rock also-rans for 14 albums before ‘Saturday Night Fever’.
What changed? Money. For much of the ‘70s, non-mainstream acts were allowed to simmer along on budding labels in the hope of a breakthrough monster, tearing out of nowhere like, well, a ‘Bat Out Of Hell’. But once rock became a major money-spinner, major labels descended, and brought their pop lifespans to bear.
Acts were generally given three albums to prove themselves chart-wise, and tossed on the ever-growing heap of has-beens if they failed. In the wake of Britpop, when most of the thriving indie labels were bought up by majors in the Great Indie Cash-In, the grace period became more like two albums. And then the era of ’00s indie sleaze hit: arguably the sleaziest thing about it was that – with alt-rock charting regularly, but so few genuinely dedicated in-it-for-the-music labels to choose from – many great talents were given a couple of singles to make a splash before going the way of Crème Brûlée.
Perhaps the best thing to happen to alternative music, then, has been its fall from profitability. As physical sales declined, majors just weren’t as interested in finding and funding the next Arctic Monkeys if their debut wasn’t going to break any first-week records and melt the tills at HMV. 60,000 vinyl sales – enough to get you a Number One album in 2022 – is chicken feed compared to the vast ocean of wonga that streaming feeds into, with minimal overheads.
Yes, this has made for a generation of underground, independent and often self-financed journeymen/women struggling to build audiences and profiles between Deliveroo shifts, artists who once might have been given a golden shot at the big time far earlier in the careers. But more often than not they’d never have been given the opportunity to fulfil their full musical potential. They’d have been little more than the throwaway punt of a coke-crazed exec, a decimal point in a huge numbers game, usually signed for their similarities to whatever was flavour of the month. The Lidl Caterpillar cakes of alt-rock, dumped on the shelves dangerously close to their sell-by date.
The ghettoising of alternative music to the album chart, then, is at least allowing independent labels like Speedy Wunderground, Dirty Hit or Turner’s label Xtra Mile to nurture acts to success, giving them the chance to explore all the crannies of their creativity along the way, fail a bit, chance their arm on a sci-fi sex god concept album and eventually, if they’re good enough, reach the top with a far more dedicated fanbase behind them than any viral flash in the pan.
It might feel like the streaming odds are stacked against them, that the financial playing field is far from level and that the media spotlight can barely permeate the depths of their burrow, but they should take some pride in the fact that they’re trudging along in the footsteps of the slow-burning success stories– from Bowie and Jimmy Page to Frank Turner. And that the ultimate prize isn’t Drake’s house: it’s longevity.