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Friday, April 22, 2011

"What's the plot?" thinking and "the best pop band in the world"

If anyone asks me to recommend a record I always suggest The Silver Seas' "High Society" or "Chateau Revenge". I tell people that in the unlikely event that they don't like them they can give them away to their next-door neighbour who assuredly will.

These are not the most celebrated, successful or culty records of the last few years but they are my favourites. I've enthused about them wherever I can but mainly with a bit of decorum. I hate the missionary zeal of music journalists who think their job is A&R. I know that a few people have taken them up on the back of my recommendation. I know this because they've told me. It's clear that they get the same thing from them as I do, that tumbling exhilaration that comes when one great up-tempo pop song follows straight after the previous one. It's not a thing that happens so often that you can afford to ignore it. (You can get a perfect idea of it here, where they stream a taster of each track.) Danny Baker shares my enthusiasm. In fact on his radio programme this week he called them "the best pop band in the world today". Simon Mayo likes them too.

Daniel Tashian, the leader of the group, was in town this week to do some songwriting. These days guys like Tashian, past the first flush of youth but clearly a brilliant songwriter, increasingly find themselves helping telegenic up and coming pop stars to write their own material. This is the template for the Duffys of this world. It's a new form of ghost writing which is turning into an industry. He was on Danny's programme for an hour yesterday and we had him on the Word podcast.

It's clear that for all their manifest quality the Silver Seas are finding it difficult, not to say impossible, to get the interest of a major record label. This is not because the labels don't recognise their quality. They do. They know they have brilliant songs and have made a couple of great records. But what nobody can answer with the Silver Seas is the "what's the plot?" question.

"What's the plot?" is the question most frequently posed nowadays when you take an act to radio. It's roughly translated as "what's the wider narrative into which this band fits and can I be guaranteed that if I support their record others will do the same?" You can see "what's the plot?" thinking at its most depressing in that poll the BBC publish at the beginning of the year where they separate the sheep who are supposed to make it from the goats who won't. It's the kind of thinking you would expect from commercial radio, where they traditionally don't play a record unless they've tested it with their listeners, but you would have thought that the BBC would be above it.

It's not just the broadcasters. It happens right across the music media where everyone is watching everyone else to make sure than the minute any artist has commercial lift-off that they've grabbed themselves a fistful of coat-tail. That's how come you find yourself startled by the ubiquitousness of new acts whose records haven't even been released yet. Everybody rushes to get them while they're allegedly hot and any sense of the public choosing what it likes goes by the board. Hence acts like the Silver Seas have problems because nobody is going to be able to make their name on the back of them. They have no narrative other than the music. In the music industry that isn't enough. Given the state of that industry you'd have thought they might be questioning some of that new-found science.