Columnist Eamonn Forde (pictured inset) is a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig.
His new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press.
The arrival of Get Back on Disney+ and its run time of almost eight hours is seen by some as an endurance test, by others as a triumph of ambient TV akin to NRK’s slow TV movement in Norway (or Andy Warhol’s Empire from 1964) and by others still (i.e. those buried deep in moptopology) as a mere amuse-bouche and what they really want is access to the other 40+ hours of footage that Peter Jackson spent the past few years wading through.
Yet Get Back is only a fraction of the length of the 11-hour, eight-part Anthology series that ran in 1995 (although that focused on the entirety of the Beatles’ career and not just a few significant weeks in January 1969).
And it is as nothing compared to Tony Palmer’s magisterial 17-part (and 17-hour) All You Need Is Love documentary series from 1977.
It was a simple scheduling coincidence that Get Back arrived around the same time as not one but two Adele specials to push her 30 album (An Audience With Adele on ITV in the UK and Adele: One Night Only on CBS in the US); but it also exposes how music on TV – or more specifically TV’s approach to music on TV – has become bifurcated.
The centrality of music on what we must term “traditional” TV has ebbed and flowed over the decades, but we are currently in a broadcasting moment where only enormous names like Adele can command a TV special that is just one component making up a bank-bending marketing push. For much of the rest of the time, music is shunted to the margins.
All too often now a primetime live music performance is something that is squeezed into the closing slot of a chat show. Witness the act racing across the shiny floor as soon as they have finished performing to answer softball and pre-approved questions and then hurriedly sharing two over-rehearsed anecdotes with a disinterested host before they are cut off as the credits roll.
Or else they have to face the indignity of standing on a podium (often on ice) as minor celebrities clomp (or Biellmanning) around them trying to win a dancing (or skating) competition.
(Hey, BBC – here is a free idea to fix this and make the format sing again: quietly and gently retire Jools Holland and get in a different musician as guest host each week – like on Have I Got News For You – and have them hand-pick all the acts so it operates like a weekly Meltdown festival. You can thank me later.)
Of course, marketing teams and TV pluggers will giddily point to the knock-on effect on sales and streams when one of their acts shows up on a chat show or dance competition. But – honestly – there has to be more to “music on TV” than this. Music deserves better than this. Dammit – music is better than this.
It is not all despair and teeth gnashing, however. Looking at TV through the lens of streaming, there is a phenomenal amount to be excited about.
Ultimately, what has happened is that a two-tiered class system has opened up for music on TV. Broadly speaking, terrestrial gets the promotional performance while streaming embraces the weighty documentary.
If we want to be harsh about it, it plays out like this: terrestrial TV is defined by the superficial; which means that streaming-only platforms have the pitch to themselves to be as scholarly as they wish.
“Looking at TV through the lens of streaming, there is a phenomenal amount to be excited about.”
It might be a honking cliché to say it out loud, but that does not make it any less true or any less impactful: we genuinely are living through a golden age of music documentaries. And they are pretty much all – pretty much every last one of them – happening on streaming services first (or having a theatrical release and then ending up on streaming services). The old broadcasters are not getting a look in. This, as we shall see, is all a hell of their own creation.
This year alone we have had Get Back, 1971, Summer Of Soul, The Velvet Underground, The Sparks Brothers, I Am A Cliché, Under The Volcano, McCartney 3,2,1, Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell, Oasis Knebworth 1996…
The irony is that on streaming audio platforms, the defining dynamic is on promiscuous listening and snacking (go broad and shallow) playlists whereas for documentaries on streaming video service it is all about focused viewing and gorging (go narrow and deep). There is a growing disparity here between sound only as opposed to sound + vision.
Perhaps there is something here about the fact that streaming services do not demand that documentary makers compress and contort their films into the tight confines of TV scheduling (which can only be 60 minutes or 90 minutes and nothing outside of those parameters).
Freed from the tyranny of the stopwatch, streaming has changed the very architecture of the music programme. If, in the telling of the tale, the first episode needs to be 64 minutes, if the second one needs to be 82 minutes, if the third needs to be 79 minutes (et cetera) then they can be. Important aspects do not need to be cut out and tight productions do not need to be padded out just because a broadcaster only understands time in blocks of 30 minutes.
Documentaries on terrestrial TV, when they happen, increasingly have to be moulded around the host: commissioning editors are almost always more interested in the big name of the person fronting the documentary rather than the big ideas holding the documentary up. Or they are made with a raised eyebrow, treating the subject as utterly beneath them, finding it impossible not to couch the whole undertaking in lazy irony and toothless smirks.
“Watching an act lifelessly rattle out platitudes to Oprah or Jools Holland about how great their new album is and why it’s a return to form? Or watching Paul McCartney, patiently sitting in a giant and cold room, magic Get Back out of thin air? I know which one is more fascinating.”
Increasingly film producers and directors with good ideas are not taking them to traditional broadcasters for several reasons: ideas risk getting squeezed down to the superficial; shows risk getting crushed to fit into a specific time slot; intended audiences are rarely credited with sufficient intelligence to deal with big ideas or presumed to have the ability to sit through something ruminative (side note: stop treating your viewers like they are idiots); and they get offered budgets so slim they can only use a fraction of what they want and can only have 5% of the music they need to capture the story properly (which is sort of an important component in music documentaries).
These production companies and directors take them to streaming platforms or to cinemas precisely because they will not have to worry about any of these unnecessary obstacles. They can, instead, focus on making documentaries with depth and heft.
Watching an act lifelessly rattle out platitudes to Oprah or Jools Holland about how great their new album is and why it’s a return to form? Or watching Paul McCartney, patiently sitting in a giant and cold room, magic Get Back out of thin air? I know which one is more fascinating.
Music on TV has become dichotomous and is split between the new guard of streaming and the old guard of terrestrial: the former is exhaustive and the latter is exhausted.
Footnote: yes, I am talking broadly here and, yes, sometimes terrestrial TV digs out a golden nugget and makes an exceptional music documentary. But the general direction of travel here is now so strong that these exceptions can only become rarer still. Music Business Worldwide