15 Jun 2017

Arcade Fire and the subdued reception in Belfast: A study in the radio-industrial complex.

๐”šhen Arcade Fire decide to call it a day, they will be hailed as the most influential band of the early 21st Century, so when Belfast music lovers look back on their performance at Belsonic 2017, they may do so with a hint of embarrassment. Similar to the legend that Led Zeppelin debuted Stairway to Heaven in the Ulster Hall (only to be almost booed off the stage - they are trying to erase that part from the brochures), Belsonic's opening night might find it gathers up quite a few phantom attendees in the next few decades.


Win Butler, the band's charismatic lead singer actually apologised for "being cunts" and not playing Belfast before this, but I would forgive them for not doing so again. Time and again throughout their set, which generously covered all of the back catalogue, they were playing to ten thousand or so bemused onlookers, surrounded by a handful of people singing along.
This was probably disheartening for the band-especially after admonishing themselves so viciously minutes before-but they played on regardless, not surrendering one drop of energy throughout the performance. In fact they flowed almost seamlessly from one song to the next, without even so much as a pause for water. At one point, they dedicated a song to Belfast itself - Suburban Wars, where Win said that the theme of the song of trying to find tribes through music despite the surburban wars of the title: "Some of you know that better than we ever will."


In fairness to the people of Belfast, the band have not got any radio support, anywhere over here, which is disgraceful. Belsonic is partnered with a commercial radio station - it would have been in their interests to add a few of their bigger hits to the rotation: "here's Arcade Fire, who'll be headlining the opening night," a DJ could say, before cueing up Wake Up. Build up some hype, sell more tickets, introduce more people to the band's music. What's not to like?
But that's not even the worst offender: the BBC is the biggest radio broadcaster in the UK, so when such a huge band (Their last two albums debuted at Number 1) release a single that is ridiculously catchy, has a big-budget music video, sounds Abba-esque and is a timely theorising of the short-sighted all-encompassing consumption that has been brought by the internet, it should be on their rotation. But it's not, not on their flagship youth station Radio 1, nor their easy listening station Radio 2, or even on the playlist of their alternative music station 6music!

Who is making these decisions? I'd be willing to bet that all the music DJs on BBC radio have at least one Arcade Fire album (probably their entire catalogue), but don't play them to the public? And yet half the stuff that makes it to the A list, those same DJs absolutely despise in private. So the playlists are likely decided by a committee of suits in an upstairs office, that Simon Cowell, and a few other very privileged producers have a direct line to. Those suits will point to the chart success of their A-List as proof that they have their finger on the pulse of the nation, when that is just a self-fulfilling prophecy - if you play the same song to someone up to ten times a day every day, they will grow familiar with it and like it. Imagine if the chorus to Everything Now was played on every station even five times a day, it would be a Top 5 single, without question. And that's the other problem - every station playlists the same set of songs!

There's only a handful of centralised networks that control all the commercial radio in the UK, which have conglomerated all the regional and city stations, meaning the playlists are dictated by (and often broadcast from) the central hub in London. Back in the 90s, the charts were awash with a plethora of British bands and artists from across the country, with a huge variance in sound, because they were making a splash in their local area, and got picked up by local radio. This produced acts as diverse as Pulp in Sheffield, to the trip hop scene in Bristol that spawned Massive Attack and Portishead, to the London-based big beat dance acts Chemical Brothers and Prodigy - as well as all the Britpop acts that had their week in the Top 20 if they had a strong enough hit and the club classics that were distributed by labels like the Ministry of Sound compilations. The only ground-up movement that is regularly challenging the music industry right now is grime - which has a natural outlet in Radio 1Extra, but has mostly thrived on the underground and through the internet.

Things are choppy on the pop charts right now as well. Spotify done changed the game - see the uproar that greeted Ed Sheeran pretty much monopolising the entire top 10 when he released his new album earlier this year. Well what do you expect when the entire nation is only exposed to a handful of artists, hand-picked by record labels for maximum profit, and one of them turns out to be phenomenally popular? People are going to want to listen to his stuff the moment it gets released, which they do, and is reflected on the streaming charts. People liked all the songs on the album, so they listened to them all. It would have happened to the Beatles in the 60s and Oasis in the 90s if the technology was there to adequately record people doing so. The stopped clock can be right twice a day, just as the record industry equivalent of the military-industrial complex (the radio industrial complex?) sometimes does find a pop star that people truly love. They would find a lot more if there were the channels to bring the best stuff up from the underground.

PS Arcade Fire were truly brilliant, I don't know if that came across enough!

EDIT: 

The official Arcade Fire Facebook page released this in response to BBC's reticence: