Can pop be saved in 2012?
The music industry may be in decline, but this year will see some great performers new and old, says Neil McCormick
Despite the apocalyptic predictions of the ancient Mayan calendar, I don’t expect to witness the end of the world in 2012. The end of the music business is another matter.
The sense of decline is inescapable, with a once mighty string of major global music companies reduced to just three in 2011, and quite possibly down to two by the end of this year (with Warner Music still looking vulnerable). Dwindling sales, collapsing profits, falling budgets and the general turmoil stirred by the advance of new technologies may be old news but that doesn’t make it any less grave.
For music fans, the shrinking of the industry may have been disguised by the avalanche of exciting music available to be heard , often for free. Looking ahead, however, there is little to suggest that 2012 is shaping up to be one of pop’s glory years. I just hope this is not a sign of chickens coming home to roost, with years of falling investment resulting in talented music-makers not being given the support they need .
So what mighty Amazonian warriors do we glimpse on the horizon, ready to save pop from itself? Last year, women ruled the charts, and in 2012 the original pop queen goes head to head with the pretender to her throne. Madonna has been the dominant female pop icon of the past three decades, but, at 53, has she still got the swagger and cutting edge to see off the challenge of Lady Gaga? Both are set to release albums and embark on world tours, with armies of fashion couturiers, milliners, production designers and choreographers drafted in to combat. May the best hat win.
In the UK and Ireland, expect strong pitches from young pretenders Little Boots and Marina and the Diamonds, who have to deliver the goods on second albums to stay in the game. A major tour by Florence and the Machine should affirm her status as Britain’s most artfully compelling female star, although Elly Jackson of La Roux may have something to say about that. But, with Adele giving her vocal cords a rest, American girls have the edge. Rapping Brooklyn motormouth Azealia Banks can be seen on the NME Awards tour in February before releasing her anticipated debut album. Potentially the most interesting of the new girls on the block is Lana Del Rey, a dark angel of 21st-century pop noir who looks as if she was conjured up by the subconscious of the internet.
Of course, if we were to believe the hysterical pronouncements of X Factor judges, 2012 already belongs to Little Mix, perhaps the most ill-fitting girl group ever. But the TV cabaret phenomenon seems to be finally running out of oxygen, as audiences tire of obvious manipulation. Simon Cowell’s era of pop domination may not be over yet, but I expect a further decline in viewing figures. His best hopes may be served by his label’s astute signing of multi-talented young urban artist Labrinth, the producer behind Tinie Tempah. He is not exactly a typical Cowell protégé: a bold music-maker with the potential to set the commercial pace. He has already made waves with his single Earthquake, and this brand of anthemic urban electro-pop is really becoming the defining sound of our times. We can expect to hear a lot more brash, attention-grabbing British rap music, including the return of Dizzee Rascal. Yet the alpha male of hip hop is still Kanye West, with the mad genius threatening to release two albums in 2012.
Robbie Williams, the biggest British pop star of the past two decades, bows out of Take That again to reclaim his solo crown. It’s hard to imagine kids getting too excited by this news. Williams will be 38 this year, and really qualifies as a veteran making a comeback.
In many ways, the modern music business is being artificially sustained by the oldies, proven acts with CD-buying audiences and live cachet. They will be out in force again. Poetic genius Leonard Cohen, 77, returns this month, with his first album in seven years, while Paul McCartney, 69, has a new album in February. And proving you are really never too old to rock and roll, original heavy-metal band Black Sabbath return for an album and tour – at the combined age of 191.
With rock in commercial decline , it relies on big old guns to keep blazing. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band return for their first album and tour since the death of saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher and Primal Scream are all venturing into psychedelic terrain with new albums. Rumours are strong that both the Rolling Stones and the Who will mark their 50th anniversaries with tours.
Comparative youngsters Radiohead and Coldplay will be out on the road. New Order, the Stone Roses and the Beach Boys are among this year’s friends reunited, but the most intriguing reunion is that of Blur, who will receive an outstanding-contribution-to-music award at the Brit Awards next month. Britpop’s most adventurous band have been in the studio, and if anyone can reconnect rock music to the modern pop pulse it is the restless genius of Damon Albarn — but first he’s got another side project with his new afro-funk trio Rocket Juice & the Moon in March.
Just to prove that guitars are not extinct, Queens of the Stone Age, Green Day and Muse all roar back into action. Garbage, Franz Ferdinand and the Ting Tings all return to find out if anybody still cares about them.
But the guitar band with the most to prove will be new English folkies Mumford & Sons. They were the biggest British band in the world in 2010 but will need to pull something out of the bag to hold our interest. I have my eye, meanwhile, on a new British band called Dry the River who have taken the Mumfords’ new folk-rock template into lyrically deeper, melodically richer and sonically more expansive terrain.
There are, as ever, plenty of debut artists around. Among the most interesting to have shown their hand are raw British blues singer Cold Specks, afro-soul songwriter Michael Kiwanuka, glorious pop siren Ren Harvieu, American country gothic duo the Civil Wars and Swedish electro groovers Niki & the Dove.
However, these are challenging times for music-makers, and, when it comes to writing the story of 2012, there is every chance that the most significant players will be those we haven’t even heard of yet.