Is soul-pop the music industry’s strategy for short-term sales success? According to the latest releases in the UK, this appears to be the case. But in the middle-term, the outlook for this phenomenon isn’t good.
Over a period of barely a month and a half, we have seen the recording debuts of Maverick Sabre, Emeli Sandé, Michael Kiwanuka and Marcus Collins; four figures who were expected to release albums that would have an impact, and not only from a commercial point of view. So far, however, they have responded unevenly to the expectations generated during the months of media warm-up prior to their releases. During its first week, Maverick Sabre’s “Lonely Are The Brave” sold almost 50,000 copies, a decent but discreet figure in terms of the expectations generated. “Our Version Of Events”, by Sandé, sold 300,000 units in two weeks of commercial activity and is on its way to becoming one of the big super-sellers of 2012 in the UK. “Home Again”, Kiwanuka’s debut, has slipped into fourth position on the British charts practically upon release, and “Marcus Collins” has reached seventh the same way. Looking at it this way, one could argue that they are a big commercial success - and that right now soul, or at least the idea of voices inspired by and modelled on the black musical legacy, is currently one of the most profitable and financially healthy sounds around.
"The music industry is slow by definition, awkward and imitative, and very predictable. It reacts at the wrong time and clumsily."
The thing is that beyond their strictly artistic value - which is debatable from many points of view - the appearance of these titles at almost the same time leads us to formulate a more general question: why is soul in fashion? Is it a coincidence that the four big multinational debuts on the British scene in the year so far, have this genre as their main point of connection? In the music industry there aren’t many coincidences or strokes of blind fate. It is relatively easy to decipher the reasons why the big recording companies, out of the blue, seem to only have eyes for singers with strong voices, retro sounds, and expressive emotional qualities - forgetting all else, as if it were only possible to get a return and media impact by way of this shortcut.
On the one hand we have the death of Amy Winehouse, which not only took away one of the most talented artists of the last decade, but also left the industry itself without time to respond; having lost a very profitable icon without warning, without even having thought of finding a reasonable replacement for her. The music industry is slow by definition, awkward and imitative, and very predictable. It reacts at the wrong time and clumsily. One could sense that after the disappearance of the author of “Back To Black” there would be an intense search for fresh meat to be billed as her replacement. But we weren’t expecting them to be so obvious and evident.
This posthumous marketing technique is also good for the press, especially because it provides headlines: how many times have we heard in the last six months that Maverick Sabre was the male alternative to Winehouse? It is a fast way to sell a story and situate the character; even if the comparison doesn’t stand up at all and ends up hurting the artist more than it benefits him. In reality, with Winehouse’s death, it was more a star with her virtues and vices who was lost, rather than a soul icon. In their latest movements, one can see that the multinationals have started the process of searching in the opposite direction: they want to find a star within soul, and not a star who sings soul. Going about it this way may continually backfire. Sabre was the first victim, but one suspects that he won’t be the last by a long shot.
On the other hand, and parallel to the disappearance of the London singer, the second factor in this mainstream soul boom was born, grew, and exploded: the Adele phenomenon. The British music industry was the first to be surprised by the success of this vocalist from Tottenham, who has only needed two albums, “19” and “21”, to win every award in the world. She’s also achieved astronomical sales figures for the hard times we are going through now, making her an absolute celebrity in the music world. She was sampled on almost every rap mixtape in 2011 and parodied on the world’s best comedy programs - two unfailing barometers for measuring an artist’s popularity. As usual - when there is a stroke of sheer luck and the industry runs into such a miracle - it quickly leaps to put itself at the service of not-very-bright executives, who demand at corporate meetings that their lackeys bring them new Adeles while they are waiting for some other boom with a totally different profile to hit. And so on.
"Is a phenomenon that has spread naturally and unexpectedly, by word of mouth and patience, and not by prefabricated design and remote control."
The funny thing about this new obsession in the major leagues with finding imitations of the singer, lies in the fact that her success originates precisely from three key points that are a firm slap in the face to the way that these big corporations work. First of all, she is a discovery and a product arising from an independent label, XL. It was proven to be a new chapter in the long history of finds from indie companies that shake up the market - and obligate the major companies to practice the doubtful art of the photocopy. Secondly, the artist’s own image is at the other end of the spectrum from the aesthetic cannon of the pop star that the upper echelons of the recording empires have in mind; which is another demonstration that triumph is not subject to any set pattern or plot. One tries to imagine the dialogue between an A&R and any executive about Adele’s demo and just trips imagining what would be said. And thirdly: this is a phenomenon that has spread naturally and unexpectedly, by word of mouth and patience, and not by prefabricated design and remote control.
In any case, the machinery is already working, and these four releases are a clear example of it. The problem is that so far none of them responds exactly to what was expected of them. Maverick Sabre isn’t Amy Winehouse with balls, but rather a sort of Irish version of Plan B. Emeli Sandé isn’t the black Adele, but rather the British answer to Beyoncé. And Michael Kiwanuka and Marcus Collins (the latter coming from “X-Factor”, which is becoming a dangerous mine of presumed new talents on the international pop-soul scene) limit themselves to using soul influences - with better taste in Kiwanuka’s case, making the easily-digested, pleasing on the ears discourse more solid. It’s not clear where this shot of soul Viagra will take the British recording industry, but we need only think of how the post-Coldplay fever ended (those days when every multinational release was put out by languid, irritatingly melancholy groups) - with the pop scene fed up with the same musical profile - to realise that nothing good can come from focusing on short-term gains.