Friday, 3 April 2009

A cure for industry breakdown - Elbow grease

I just checked on Elbow's UK sales for The Seldom Seen Kid, which have just cruised past the 500k mark. When I first posted on Elbow's momentum and the contributing factors to it back in September, sales had just past 150k. But Fiction boss Jim Chancellor confidently suggested the album would reach platinum. I believed him. I suggested an arena or two might be in the offing at last? It was in plan said Jim – and was signed, sealed and delivered with aplomb at their triumphant Wembley show a couple of weeks back (my music mistake of the year so far: not attending that show).

At that time the band had just won the Mercury Music Prize, so platinum sales and arena shows looked very much on, but even Chancellor probably wouldn't have bet on a Brit, which the band won in February. And so, Elbow was resurrected from a languishing obscurity. Their wonderful, but very 'unpop' Seldom Seen Kid Album has become popular (let's not overdo it, The Seldom Seen Kid ranked 35th best-selling album for 2008, though is by far the most 'progish' repertoire on that list) and will probably tick-over into double-platinum (UK sales of 600k) at some stage this year.

This is all great of course, with the band themselves and Garvey in particular, seemingly able to enjoy their long-awaited success with a lovely humbleness – basking in it without melting in it, and at the same time none of the awkward embarrassment that can often come when 'indie' bands break into the mainstream. When Garvey says “it's been good being me of late” on his 6 Music show (if you haven't discovered it yet, do, it's a genuine radio gem) it comes across as genuine appreciation.

Better than great in fact, Elbow's success is refreshing. The sometimes cynical UK music press has launched no backlash at all, not a hint of it. Instead, just continued good will. I've yet to come across one hard core Elbow fan to reel from their mainstream success. Maybe in these hard times, a little glory to the underdog is simply appreciated. Of course, the whole episode is underpinned by sheer quality. Listening to “Grounds For Divorce” and “Weather To Fly” this week, those two tracks are still revealing new qualities to me now, 18 months after first hearing them, and listening to them lots.

Elbow's success is now widely recognised and often referenced. In reviews for new releases by Starsailor, Doves and The Hours (all of which are very good records) you'll find obvious references to Elbow as unlikely but welcome trailblazers. I've been thinking though, could Elbow's success have a greater significance for the music business itself? It has certainly lifted the mood (as well as raised the stakes) in many record label marketing camps for other indie bands. In these hard times that is much appreciated. Perhaps there is now room for a bit of confident swagger in the way the campaigns for these records are executed. People really want this stuff! And there's no doubt The Seldom Seen Kid has nicely created a public appetite for more of it.

Being both fun and serious and about it, Elbow's success has scratched some very stubborn itches that have plagued the ailing record business for quite a while:

  • Labels: Think the 18 month long album campaign is dead in the age of immediacy and music-streaming-file-sharing ubiquity? Not necessarily - The Seldom Seen Kid

  • New bands: Can you survive in the cut & thrust of today's ruthless business, with one or two album deals and at best, three-strikes-before-your out? You just might – Elbow

  • Old bands: In the hole? Sales & audiences falling despite delivering your best work? Past your prime but not past your best? Do carry on – Elbow!

  • Fans: Think the age where you go to a gig and hear a charismatic front man not only talk between songs, but actually say something entertaining and informative (possibly to you directly?) are sadly gone? No! - Guy Garvey – man of the people and master of audience participation

  • Music press, retailers: Think bands that don't erm, scrub up too well, will struggle to find a large audience through mainstream media? Not always – Elbow!

  • Everybody: Think a complex, melancholy 'unpop' record can't become a mainstream blockbuster hit? Wrong – The Seldom Seen Kid

  • Everybody: Think a band with a terribly dull name will struggle to catch on? Wrong – Elbow! (okay, there's also Coldplay, Oasis etc.).

But where does Elbow go from here? What's next? Obviously there's the question of America and subsequent global super-stardom. What about Elbow The Movie? Personally I would love to see something done in the spirit of Wilco's “I'm Trying to Break Your Heart” or “Ashes of American Flags”. I'll be there for the theatrical release and the DVD, and the coffee table book.

Probably best of all, this band of 18 years in the making, that have worked blood, sweat & tears and must have been several times on the brink of throwing in the towel, is currently writing a new album and no doubt, will make several more after that. That way, they don't miss out on anything and nor do we. At least something in the music business is working.

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