Northern rock

16 September 2017

9:00 AM

16 September 2017

9:00 AM

A fortnight ago, the debut album by a young British guitar band entered the chart at No. 6. You might have expected to see this pored over with some interest by the press, for whom the search for the New Arctic Monkeys, the New Oasis and the New Smiths has long been a matter of urgency. Instead, you will scour the daily newspaper arts pages in vain for mentions of the Sherlocks, and you won’t fare much better looking at the specialist music magazines. According to the self-anointed tastemakers of British pop, they might as well not exist.

That’s because the Sherlocks are representatives of a growing trend in British music: the straightforward indie rock band who are hugely popular in the north — the north-west especially — but whose fame falls off a cliff the moment you get south of Birmingham. ‘We’d sold 9,800 copies of the Sherlocks as of this morning,’ Korda Marshall, who signed the band to his label Infectious, told me earlier this month. ‘I reckon a good 6,500 to 7,000 of those have been north of Birmingham.’ You can see the relative levels of popularity when you look at the group’s upcoming tour dates: their show at the 2,600-capacity Manchester Academy is long since sold out; there are still tickets available for their London gig, at Heaven — which holds 1,000 people.

This divide is a real thing. A couple of years ago, I asked Spotify to hunt through its data to see which music was most popular in which of Britain’s big cities, going by its streaming figures. Indie rock was most popular in Newcastle, followed by Manchester and York. The only place south of Sheffield paying any attention was Brighton. Punk and metal were overwhelmingly northern genres, too, with the south preferring hip-hop and R&B.

It’s always been that way, to some extent. The band manager Conrad Murray points out that ‘Blur were always miles bigger in London. So were the Libertines, so is Jamie T. To the northern bands, the Stone Roses are their Beatles. But people from London don’t come to the north to gigs, so they don’t see it.’

Murray pretty much has the market cornered in bands popular in the north-west. The Stone Roses are one of his. So are the Courteeners, who headlined in front of 50,000 people in Manchester just five days after the bombing at Ariana Grande’s concert. So are Blossoms, from Stockport, so popular in the north-west that road signs in their hometown were changed to read ‘Stockport, home of Blossoms’.

It’s easier to work out why the London media aren’t interested in these bands than why they are so popular in the north. For starters, they are lumped into the pile marked ‘landfill indie’, a term coined by the writer Andrew Harrison in the Word magazine, and which rapidly became the description for any loudish guitar band writing conventional verse-chorus-verse songs. ‘Landfill indie’ became the signifier for music that was pale, male and stale. Hence you are far more likely to read a newspaper interview with a bedroom R&B auteur who can play to a 400-capacity club, but who represents the future, than you are with a guitar band who can play a 5,000-capacity theatre, but who represent the past, despite their youth.

Murray suggests guitar bands’ popularity in the north-west is because they support each other: he cites the Stone Roses backing the Courteeners and they in turn backing Blossoms, though this rather ignores the fact that since he manages them all (and his business partner Simon Moran promotes them all) he’s in a position to guarantee that mutual support. Marshall suggests a less nebulous reason. In the south-east, he says, the gig-venue circuit has been decimated by pub venues being bought and turned into gastropubs and flats. It’s not that way in the north, he suggests, so young bands can still tour, building up a following across the region in a way they can’t in the south. He points out that before he signed the Sherlocks last year, they were already playing to between 500 and 1,000 people each night across the north. That breeds loyalty, he says: ‘They champion their own, and they’re not interested in what the “cool” London media are saying.’

Both Marshall and Murray think the ‘tastemakers’ — not just in print, but on radio, too — dislike not just the music, but the fact that lots of people like it. ‘I’ve stopped being surprised by what is a subconscious anti-northern agenda,’ Murray says. ‘It’s so sad,’ Marshall says. ‘I’ve worked with a lot of guitar bands and it’s never been as hard to get support for them. There’s a real discrepancy between too-cool-to-dance London media and real bands with real fans that become successful without the help of London media, who resent their success.’

Marshall and Murray are resigned these days to their bands being loved by fans but critically ignored (not even despised; just ignored). The Sherlocks’ album was barely reviewed in national print media; few bothered sending reviewers to the Courteeners’ Old Trafford show less than a week after the bombing — despite its newsworthiness. It’s no longer a problem for them — they have found ways around it. But it might prove to be more problematic for the ever-shrinking world of the music press. After all, if you refuse to cover bands your readers like, why would they continue reading?

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