x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Guitar bands may be less popular, but they're far from disappearing

Ahead of Kasabian's Dubai concert this Friday, we wonder, are they the last of a dying breed?

Tom Meighan of Kasabian performing in London in December. The band’s concert in Dubai is on Friday. Caitlin Mogridge / Redferns
Tom Meighan of Kasabian performing in London in December. The band’s concert in Dubai is on Friday. Caitlin Mogridge / Redferns

On Friday, Kasabian's world tour will call in at The Sevens Stadium in Dubai. It's their only show in the Middle East, and the promoters Done Events are - naturally - trumpeting the arrival of "one of the best live rock acts in the world". Note the emphasis on live. Because, despite a new album that was generally well received back in September, fewer people have bought the fourth Kasabian record than any of their previous three efforts.

Good job, then, that they're worth seeing in concert. Even though there's an Oasis-style, laddy swagger to their performances, there's also a generosity of spirit that makes their gigs feel celebratory rather than confrontational. So, given that there is so much goodwill surrounding Kasabian, why did Velociraptor fail to breach the Billboard Top 200 in the US and experience such a sales stutter in their home country? The answer has little to do with Serge Pizzorno's songwriting or Tom Meighan's vocals - even though The National damned the record with faint praise last September by calling it "reliable". It's not even a reflection of the illegal download culture. The past 12 months suggest alternative guitar music - the genre in which, generally, rock stars are born - is, quite simply, less popular than ever.

Gathering together global album sales for 2011 makes sobering reading for any young band with dreams of fame. Of the top 10, only two acts can genuinely claim to be guitar bands. One of those, Mumford and Sons, released their album in 2009. And the other is Coldplay, whose latest album Mylo Xyloto is probably the most electronic-sounding record they've ever produced.

The situation is so worrying, the British record industry body the BPI was moved to reassure fans in a press release that "recent reports of [guitar music's] demise are premature", after announcing figures that noted that rock music's share was the lowest it's been for eight years. "It still accounts for three of every 10 albums sold," reasoned the chief executive Geoff Taylor.

But the facts don't lie. Guitar music feels stale, and, arguably, has done for years. It was always a curious quirk of the UK music scene that its most acclaimed bands of the past decades - Blur and Oasis - were applauded for sounding like the classic groups of yesteryear. The bands who followed tried to sound a bit like, well, Blur and Oasis. Essentially, this creative cul-de-sac made for boring, heard-it-all-before music - at the accessible, mainstream end of the market, at least.

So while, say, the Manic Street Preachers were peddling yet another album of emotive but ultimately unmemorable indie rock, in 2009 Lady Gaga was coming up with the genuinely thrilling and innovative pop thrill of Bad Romance. It sounded, new, fresh, exciting. It was sung by someone genuinely odd, but compellingly so. Put that up against some scruffy band from a London bedsit whose dreams begin and end with being "the next Joy Division" and there was only ever going to be one winner.

Of course, the quick fix that the internet provides means the churn rate of "hot new bands" who turn out to be anything but is higher than ever. Bands are dropped before they can reach anything like their potential. And against this backdrop, it would be fascinating to see if even a young Coldplay would these days be given the time to develop into the biggest band in the world. Frankly, it would be unlikely - it's far easier for a record company to gather together a hit songwriting team, a willing pop star in waiting and a few big-name guest stars (which, essentially, is the story of Bruno Mars), than it is to spend time painstakingly working with a band over a number of years and records.

Ironically, of course, the charts are now so full of Lady Gaga-style pop and R&B collaborations that they've become largely irrelevant to anyone other than teenagers and record companies. But it is interesting - and perhaps a little cheering - that the top seller last year, Adele, makes music that is undeniably more conservative but appears to actually mean something. Someone Like You sold a staggering 1.2 million singles in the UK alone - proof that people will buy into a song that has a direct emotional resonance even if it doesn't fit the template of what's currently "on trend".

So maybe it's not all over for guitar music. There is plenty of new, exciting stuff out there. But when you have to go back to 2009 to find the last time the top 20 singles of the year were breached by people holding guitars, the facts suggest that however good any new guitar bands might be, they're unlikely to cross over into the mainstream. 2009, indeed, was also the year Kasabian released Fire, their biggest hit to date. The Leicester band are too self-assured to admit that it may have been their high-water mark. But no wonder they put so much into their live shows. In 2012, they're as important as selling records.

artslife@thenational.ae

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