Those of us able to afford to make ethical choices now regularly concern ourselves with the purchase of local produce, fairtrade coffee and organic seasonal vegetables, and we feel duped when our new independent cafe or favourite herbal teabag turns out to be part-owned by a corporate giant. We are justifiably worried about what we eat and what we feed to our children. We want sustainability and accountability. Up and down the country, well-heeled consumers are scrutinising labels in shop aisles, or selecting individual vegetables at farmers' markets, ethical latte in hand.
But what about your mental nutrition? What are you feeding your brain and where is it coming from? What about the music that you listen to? As the traditional iconic retailers like HMV retire from the high street, most of us will be purchasing music from a global and faceless third party corporation, with little or no knowledge about the way in which that music was created. If you download your music from Amazon or iTunes, do you take time to read the 'ingredients', that is to say, do you read the lyrics and the credits and consider the artwork in the way you used to with an LP? Are you listening to an artist or a band performing a song that they wrote themselves (I'd call that organic), or are you listening to a pop tune co-written by a conglomerate of industrial co-writers and performed by some battery hens in heels, or a genetically modified beast (see 'Jedward')? What are your children listening to?
If you are one of the large percentage of people approaching middle age whose music taste stagnated after they got married and put the Ikea CD shelving up, and whose only exposure to music is now via the XFactor or a few minutes of BBC radio, then it might be time to think about exploring some alternative choices. This does not mean you have to re-open that piercing or get an asymmetrical haircut. Just think of it as another ethical decision, like recycling the wine bottles or buying organic produce. I feel it is important for women in particular to get involved with rediscovering their taste in music, especially if the only songs you have listened to on repeat recently are tracks from the CBeebies album. Get back in touch with yourself through music.
The karaoke supermarket that is the X Factor is the equivalent of chowing down on a ready-meal with no lasting nutritional benefit. The huge marketing reach that Simon Cowell's organisation has means that his pop products are being pumped intravenously into your diet on a regular basis. Whether you are shopping, listening to the radio or sitting in a cafe, you don't have to be there too long before you hear the silky smooth sound of his pockets being lined. I'm not particularly interested in slinging mud at Cowell because he is primarily in the business of creating entertainment, not music, but he has become the Walmart of the music industry, and if you are an ethically concerned consumer, you might want to think about your music choice, both in terms of what you digest, what it gives you in return, and who benefits from it.
Head to the alternative brands for inspiration, in exactly the same way as heading to Fresh & Wild rather than Tesco. Explore the music on the rosters of record labels like Bella Union, Domino Records, Fat Cat, Rough Trade and Beggars Banquet. Like your coffee shop, these labels often have some aspect of corporate funding and would not be able to survive if they didn't, but the artists are hand-picked and the music written directly from personal experience, rehearsed & performed with friends in local venues, recorded with the help of a small label or independent funding, and then toured at venues & festivals in the UK and Europe. Many of these artists will still struggle to pay their rent but they are choosing to do this for a reason beyond the monetary. This, you'll note, is the absolute opposite of Cowell, and I believe you can hear sincerity if you listen carefully.
Try listening to BBC 6 Music, or Amazing Radio or discover artists on Soundcloud and Bandcamp. Check out reviews at Pitchfork and The Quietus. Make informed choices. Consider the great history of British pop & rock music (a basic and grossly inadequate list might include The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who, ELO, Queen, Elton John, David Bowie, Kate Bush, Joy Division, The Cure, PJ Harvey, Goldfrapp.. and many more..) These artists wrote their own songs and whilst they did or still do receive the financial assistance of major record labels, their line-up is dictated by talent, not formed in the image of an executive's marketing ideal, and for the most part they did not have PR people telling them what to say, what to wear, how to behave and what to sing. Their music continues to fuel people's artistic imaginations and provides the soundtrack to poignant moments in our lives. It has an emotional worth beyond mere entertainment.
During your next 10 minute coffee break, discover a new artist for yourself, someone that speaks to you and expresses your emotions more poetically than you can. Or just something that makes you tap your foot and smile. You can do this from your desk or on your phone. Go exploring for free. There's no guilt in enjoying a bit of mainstream pop but there is so much more out there waiting for you. You may discover an artist that you love, or an album that will give you years of enjoyment, plus you will be directly contributing to the sustainability of what is left of the independent music industry. 'Every little helps' as they say, but it particularly helps those who aren't multi-billionaires.
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