Missed off the playlist

In Commentary, HOME, MUSIC by Nolwenn Davies

An interesting situation occurred during the BBC Radio 1 chart show of Sunday 26th January.  A song was played which, to my knowledge, had never been played before on the station.  Now, this in itself is not necessarily unusual. Was it some reissued Bob Dylan track or something, which had wandered into the number 27 position due to a surge of interest from middle aged music listeners?  A track which did not appeal to the youth demographic of Radio 1, or an old song which did not fit within their purview of tracking down and playing the best of new music?

radio_1920977cNo, it wasn’t. Placed at an assured number 4 was the track Braveheart by up and coming girl-band Neon Jungle. It was the second single from this group of young girls, and it followed the pattern of debut single Trouble (which entered the charts at number 12) of having the girls performing over heavy EDM style beats. While their vocals feature standard girl-band harmonies and messages about girl power etc etc, the thundering bass and violent synths pick them out from the more sedate work of a Girls Aloud or Saturdays.  The girls themselves are styled in the typical urban neo-90s,  crop tops, chunky jewellery and leggings look that has become de rigueur among our female popstars in the post Stooshe world.  They, in my opinion, are very much a girl band for 2014. And yet, they have at no point been playlisted by Radio 1. These girls are not niche, they’re signed to Sony.  Their music sounds current and interesting. Their image is shaped to be popular.  And, the fact that they’re able to score a top 5 hit shows that there is obviously an audience for them. So why are we not hearing them on heavy rotation throughout the day on the most popular pop radio station in the country?

This is not even the first time in recent months that this has happened.  New boy-band The Vamps similarly went unplaylisted until the point their debut single went to number 2. Radio 1 has quickly made inroads to get them onside now.  Situations like these raise two key issues.  One is the role of BBC Radio 1 in the modern world, how relevant it is to its target youth audience, and how it is to accurately reflect what is popular when music listening has become so diffused and personalised, and record sales alone aren’t enough to judge how popular an artist is.  That deserves a think piece all to itself so I shan’t detail it here. Instead I think we should examine  an issue which I find very interesting, about the path to fame of a new pop act.

Because it is far from smooth.  In many ways life is much more straightforward if you a group of white boys who like playing guitars and singing about going out and girls or whatever. You gig in pubs.  You get mentioned on a few blogs.  Then NME/Radar notices you.  You make Guardian new band of the day.  Then BBC introducing play you, and let you perform early on the Sunday at their stage at Reading Festival.  You release your main single which gets played on both Radio 1 and 6music, and on a slot on Jools Holland.  It enters the charts at number 12, followed by an album at number 4, an NME award for best new act and an assured position in ‘credible’ music culture.

Essentially, you get an easy ride, in my opinion. That is because the vast majority of people in the music business, press and media are white men who like guitars and see that as the default type of good music, a bias which was first named in the 80s as ‘rockism’. Thus, a group of girls who want to sing over a big thundering bassline and some whizzing synths you are instantly at a disadvantage. You may have label money behind you, but that means that music snobs everywhere can dismiss you as not ‘credible’ just because a group of songwriters wrote your song for you (just like everyone in Motown did) or because you’re trying to appeal to teenage girls not old men who run this industry.  Obviously if you’re an enormous popstar like Lady Gaga or One Direction you have enough momentum behind you to survive without the approval of the music press.  And if your whole journey has been chronicled on X Factor then by the time you release music you’ve also generated enough attention for airtime.  But for the low level popstar like a Charli XCX or Little Boots, your music falls between musical stools, not indie enough to be played by Zane Lowe, but not well known enough to be played by Scott Mills.

Thus you are left to struggle on and fight for every bit of airtime you can get. I feel quite sorry for Neon Jungle. I hope they can build and build their own popularity and survive without Radio 1 approval while the station insists on still playing rock music, despite not one rock song going to number 1 in 2013. So Radio 1, do keep playing You Me At Six’s ‘Fresh Start Fever’ on your A List even though it only entered the UK charts at number 46.  You’re just confirming to me your own snobbery. I’m gonna go rave with the girls.

Nick Cordingly

Nick Cordingly is the Deputy Editor of MUSIC at PTL. He was recently dragged kicking and screaming out of the Cambridge bubble and is now in the enviable position of trying to find a use for a history degree when all he wants to do is listen to pop music and tweet. Nick also has a tumblr called ‘Sounds & Thoughts’ which he should update more regularly.

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(Image sourced from: www.telegraph.co.uk)