The following blog comes from music journalist and Popjustice Editor Peter Robinson (pictured inset). Robinson’s article originally appeared in the Q1 2019 edition of quarterly magazine Music Business UK, which is available via subscription through here.
One of adulthood’s most underrated skills is knowing when to leave a party. Knowing that there’s a point during any night out when diminishing returns set in, when any further drink will make things worse rather than better, and when the chances of drama, fiasco and unseemly farce grow exponentially greater.
Last month’s articles following the death of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis each discussed his extraordinary music and the impact it made both in its own right and on the music of others. But there was blanket recognition, too, for the way Hollis called time on Talk Talk and pretty much retired. As the Guardian put it in one headline: ‘He disappeared into the fog.’
Artists leave music behind all the time. But rarely through choice. So rare is such a decision, in fact, that it’s almost taboo. As people who work in the music industry and as music fans — in fact, I’ve heard rumours it’s even possible to be both at once — we are not programmed to take seriously an artist who decides, for whatever reason: that’s it for now; I’m off. We demand, perhaps without realising it, what usually ends up being a long, slow decline; album after album with reviews trumpeting ‘a return to form’ that are nothing of the sort.
“If we permit a band to split up, it’s not long before we demand a reunion. Solo artists who turn their back on the whole thing are regarded as fools or mad recluses.”
If we permit a band to split up, it’s not long before we demand a reunion. Solo artists who turn their back on the whole thing are regarded as fools or mad recluses. Someone might not want to tour again, or make more music, might feel they’ve said everything they ever needed to say, might know themselves well enough to know this lifestyle isn’t for them? Inconceivable. Not to mention inconvenient, if the purchase of your next property relies on squeezing 20% out of another album.
For every artist who finds themselves pulled away from music by family, by shifting priorities or for the sake of their own sanity, there are also those who are pushed out – the latter scenario surely no mystery when you consider the shifting demands of 21st century pop.
The early-2000s brought online sites and the demand for a fourth promotional obligation to sit alongside TV, radio and print. Within a few years, social media had created an even more creatively exhausting challenge: for musicians to create brand new original content for channels on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, then Instagram, Snapchat and all the rest. (Naturally, every TV, radio, print and online interview will involve extra content for the titles’ own social channels, too.)
“For every artist who finds themselves pulled away from music by family, by shifting priorities or for the sake of their own sanity, there are also those who are pushed out.”
All these extra obligations have benefitted some bands and singers in terms of allowing them to round out their artistic proposition, but it’s the rare artist who’ll tell you this explosion of required content hasn’t resulted in them spreading themselves or their ideas incredibly thinly.
Of course, all of this happened while live music became an increasingly important factor in keeping artists in the black, leading to a trend for longer and more demanding tours – something well illustrated by the world tour accompanying Lada Gaga’s first album, which went on for so long that, by the end of it, she’d started incorporating a hit single from her second LP.
In 2019 you’re more likely to find someone like Ariana Grande touring two albums at once for a different reason, as the lure of algorithms, the fear of falling monthly listeners and the demand for the relentless dripfeed of new music moves us away from traditional album cycles and people like Ariana, The 1975 and Foals deliver multiple albums within the space of a year.
On one hand it’s cheering that at least this latest demand for more content is centred on the content most artists are supposedly here to make: music. (Even if billing music as ‘content’ is a concept so bleak that it makes many of us want to throw ourselves into the nearest skip and set fire to it.) Also, taking the example of Ariana, how incredible that an artist at the height of her powers is making twice as much music while she’s in the zone, rather than falling into the traditional hole of waiting two years and wondering where the inspiration went.
But the relentless demand for fresh content isn’t for everyone, and the strain it puts on artists will, certainly, push many to breaking point. Lots of creative people thrive under pressure; some just need a push, some encouragement, some nurturing.
Many do not need this at all. What they need is sometimes a bit of time off, but often something more permanent: a way out. Or to at least know there is a way out. But there’s always two more albums left in the contract and a festival slot already booked for the end of next summer; there’s always the first day off in months that’s going to be cancelled because they need to shoot a platform-specific vertical video for the acoustic version of a single that really needs to work, even if there’s another single planned to drop in five weeks.
It’s amazing, really, to consider how so much of the music we’ve loved over the years has come from people who’d rather be doing something else. Of those reading this magazine, who has never worked with an artist who is clearly exhausted, or creatively spent?
As a music journalist, I’ve rolled my eyes when artists have cancelled press days, and I’ve literally sat with artists, asking them about their ludicrous workloads and nodding along sympathetically, when it’s clear that time with me followed by a three-hour photoshoot is part of the problem.
“It’s amazing, really, to consider how so much of the music we’ve loved over the years has come from people who’d rather be doing something else.”
Many of us have had musicians and creatives tell us literally to our faces that they just cannot do this any more. Given how sceptically we view artists who in our heart of hearts we know can’t do it any more, it’s no wonder there’s no orthodox way of dealing with popstars who just don’t want to.
So, let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge the artists who know when they want to leave the party, and who find the courage to follow their instincts. And to acknowledge those who work with musicians — the labels, the managers, the everyone elses — who don’t respond to all this by thrusting another drink into their artist’s hand, and who don’t talk them into staying just a little bit longer because the dealer’s really only 45 minutes away now and things are definitely going to get better; who allow artists to leave the party on their own terms. To say goodbye, jump in a cab and disappear into the night.
MBUK is available via an annual subscription through here.
All physical subscribers will receive a complimentary digital edition with each issue.Music Business Worldwide