The Black Keys recently won ‘Best Rock’ album at this year’s Grammys for their album, ‘El Camino’. Putting aside the obvious question (are the Black Keys actual rock?), something else has intrigued me about this story. I was scrolling through pages of endless new reporting on the Grammys (if anyone wants my opinion on Adele’s dress just ask) and also, through endless comments left on the various articles when I saw a comment which basically said that because they had won a Grammy (three of them actually) The Black Keys were now sell-out’s. This is worth further consideration I thought…
So, is that right then? Can it be as soon as an artist or band become successful there are those amongst us that deem them sell-outs? Interestingly I saw an interview with Adam Ant on TV (yes, quite the modern man aren’t I?) and he said that one of the worst things about becoming successful was that he noticed the fans who originally attended his gigs were left behind as his fame grew. Ant talked about knowing fans almost on a name by name basis when he first started out but that these fans were almost overtaken by newer fans once he became famous. As his gigs grew so did the gap between performer and fan.
Surely as fans of an artist we should want success for them? Weirdly, it doesn’t seem so. It seems that people want to keep ‘their’ favourites for themselves, to keep them out of the public eye so they and they alone can enjoy them. It almost seems to breed some inner smugness that they are party to knowing about someone they believe to be great but the rest of the world doesn’t know them. It’s like a type of elitism but only this elitism is kept secret.
It is a strange phenomenon that sees’s someone’s biggest supporters actively hoping that they don’t make it big. To what end does this serve? Well, I guess it would keep the artist/band within touching distance of that fan – both in a monetary sense and also a physical sense. Going to gigs these days for a well establish artist is an expensive hobby. You only have to see how much the Rolling Stones were recently selling tickets for their tour to see that (if you haven’t seen the prices and want to go, I wouldn’t bother looking them up unless you are reading this from the top of a pile of money. Whilst wearing a suit. Made of money. Eating biscuits. Made of money.) A large part of the ticket price is often due to the venues in which these gigs are held – putting a show on in the o2 can’t be cheap. But whilst these venues are often mightily impressive where does the average punter find him/herself? Yup, 2,000,000 rows from the front watching ant’s doing a passable impression of their hero’s, having paid a small fortune for the privilege. Invariable a lesser known band will be playing in a smaller venue with cheaper ticket prices. So, I can see why fans don’t want to lose ‘their’ favourites to the public because there is a very possibility that they will be lost to them forever.
Or, alternatively, have I made an error (it wouldn’t be the first!)? Was the comment of ‘sell-out’ aimed at The Black Keys because they had won a commercial award? Had it been an obscure music magazine who handed The Black Keys such an award would the fans have reacted in the same manner? Is it because the Grammys are such a commercial, industry driven award ceremony that people think it cheapens those not nominated? Certainly, when Pearl Jam won ‘Best Hard Rock Performance’ in 1996 Eddie Vedder made his feelings pretty clear when he said, “I don’t know what this means. I don’t think it means anything.” Vedder isn’t the only person to have a problem with the Grammys. Maynard James Keenan, lead singer of Tool, didn’t attend the ceremony when the band were nominated for two awards, saying “I think the Grammys are nothing more than some gigantic promotional machine for the music industry. They cater to a low intellect and they feed the masses. They don’t honor the arts or the artist for what he created. It’s the music business celebrating itself. That’s basically what it’s all about”.
I think, for what it’s worth, that for once the ‘alternative’ genre does us all no favours in this problem. I think it has somehow served to make people think that bands and artists should remain in this genre and if they somehow break across to the wider public, garner some commercial success then they have sold out. Being ‘alternative’, musically, meant listening to music not in the popular domain and now people find their ‘alternative’ music has become fashionable – people hear it on the radio, in the charts and in the mainstream. Now that it is changing, people seem to think that this is due to musicians selling out. Is it? Or is it because, finally, the ‘mainstream’ are becoming a little more accepting?
Words: Brian McKay