Keen observers of Loud And Quiet over the past year might have noticed a quirk to our covers: not since Veronica Falls graced it in September 2011 has a band appeared there. Solo musician after producer after auteur have followed, but no bands were to be seen. And all this by sheer coincidence – no hidden agenda has banished the humble group from our covers; it’s just how it fell. It’s not that there aren’t any bands worth talking about – Dirty Projectors, Chairlift and The xx, to name only three, all released great records last year – but somehow the archetypal group has lost its mojo.
Don’t just take our word for it either – whatever parameter you use, bands are on the wane: last month’s best-of-2012 lists were justifiably dominated by the likes of Grimes, Frank Ocean, Tame Impala (which for all its apparent bandness is the work of one man) and Kendrick Lamar. The year before that it was Bon Iver and PJ Harvey. The charts, too, have long abandoned the band – the only act to top the chart in 2012 that could even loosely resemble one were Maroon 5 – and even the NME, the last bastion of the classic four-piece rock combo, have put only four groups on their front cover since the summer.
But why? One answer is technology and cost. In 2013, forming a band is the expensive way to go about making music – why spend thousands on guitars, amps, drums and rehearsal rooms when there’s software bundled with your laptop that can produce more innovative and interesting results? And anyway, computers behave themselves far more than your mates: twenty years ago, Noel Gallagher needed his spotty little brother’s talent-free pub band to help get his songs performed – and then had to fire them all bar Liam within four years. Now, Jake Bugg multitracks stuff on his laptop and goes it alone.
A vicious circle has also been generated: with band-based inspiration thin on the ground, it’s little surprise that 16-year-olds with tunes in their heads don’t immediately think of getting them to the world with the help of a roomful of mates. The rise of the auteur, on the other hand – of everyone from Kanye West to Dan Deacon to Skream – has given the idea of a self-made, utterly independent creator so much more coolness currency.
But of course vicious circles need to start somewhere, and the band’s stock doesn’t get this low without a little help from the people in charge of picking bands. After the two-year flurry in the mid-noughties during which everyone cool, ever, was forming a band and putting on fashion shows, the dust settled and the industry panicked. Then in 2006 it decided to thrust The Kooks into the UK charts, peddling a bland, unit-shifting, watershed-friendly McIndie that inadvertently propelled the idea of being in a band away from a spirited act of independence and toward becoming a mainstream pop genre. Within a year, a generation of T4 presenters were riding this wave of pedestrian, phone company-sponsored faux-indie, and the term “landfill” was being applied to the record industry’s will-this-do approach to signing new talent: nobody stopped to wonder whether someone might be asking the wrong question if the Pigeon Detectives, the Enemy and the Fratellis were the answer.
Around the same time, the X-Factor began co-opting the music of indie bands for melisma-addled Saturday night TV karaoke sessions while the profiles of James Murphy, MIA and Burial all rose sufficiently to point out what imaginative, startling music could be made without leaving your house. Without warning, the band’s cultural stash was being eroded from all sides. Who really needed, or would want, to be in a band at all?
And so we find ourselves seven years later with the likes of Spector and Brother being foisted upon an increasingly cynicism-intolerant public that has never had more diverse tastes, with predictable consequences: music fans turn to the likes of Jessie Ware and Tune-Yards, Bat For Lashes and Ariel Pink – compelling, independent personalities making engaging, direct records.
Of course, genres and fashions are notoriously fickle, and it’s a foolish futurist who thinks the present is here to stay. After all, pop music has a long tradition of rejecting the status quo: even in 2012’s baron field, thrilling new acts sprouted, like Savages, who simply couldn’t have existed as solo projects, and there'll always be musicians who only spark off a sparring partner in the vein of Morrissey and Marr, Lennon and McCartney or Albarn and Coxon.
Even so, the evidence suggests these phenomena are increasingly rare. Sure, the march of technology, lazy major labels – twas ever thus, some might point out. But equally, it’s easy to imagine a Rubicon soon being crossed, and the band as a searing musical force becoming little more than a museum piece.