British TV is more universally popular than it’s been for quite some time; between Downton Abbey, the continued popularity of Doctor Who and Sherlock and now Wolf Hall, we’ve got the internet eating out of our televisual palm. Similarly, British music has seen a resurgence in popularity across the world, particularly stateside, with everyone from Charli XCX to James Blake dominating the lives of many a Yank. Given these dual heights you’d be forgiven for assuming that some of this music might make its way onto our screens but, tragically, it’s not.
For what seems like an eternity now British TV has been devoid of any kind of music-focused shows, favouring instead increasing numbers of tacky singing competitions, some of which don’t even have a prize (looking at you, The Voice), musical guests on talk shows and well, Jools Holland. Our TV schedules are depressingly free of any show that dares to give up and coming musicians a platform. Music in the land of British TV has become background noise, something to lay over a panning shot of some Tudors or a bleak industrial estate, and it doesn’t make any sense.
British musical culture is incredibly healthy at the moment and there are plenty of artists drifting around in the blogosphere with crossover appeal who could benefit from a TV-sized audience rather than the niche crowds online. As record sales dry up, live shows are fast becoming the main source of income for many artists be they big or small, and the general public’s appetite for live music is only increasing as more and more popular names take to the road regularly to support themselves. Yet it seems the TV execs haven’t got the message and shows focusing on live music either go un-commissioned or are relegated to the wee hours of a weekday morning, far from primetime.
Take for example Four to the Floor, this was Channel 4’s most recent underground show. It aired at midnight and ran for four episodes. However, those four episodes were some of the most interesting TV last year, featuring poetry, performances and collaborations between graphic artists and musicians. Counting Joey Bada$$ (pictured below), Novelist and Mercury Prize winner Young Fathers among its guests, it was a work of art in its own right; bringing artists beloved by those who know them to wider audience (Mostly thanks to 4OD, where its still available). I live in hope for four more.
Making shows like this is hardly a tall order. Many of the artists worth featuring have never performed on TV before so their fees won’t be sky-high. They have their own equipment, all you need are some cameras, a studio, and someone to say ‘action’. The ease with which decent musical TV can be made is self-evident when you take a look at the US’s listings. From the daily ‘late night’ shows like Fallon and Letterman, whose guests have featured Ryan Adams, Run the Jewels and Courtney Barnett to channels like Adult Swim that regularly put out free compilations of music from high-profile, progressive artists such as Flying Lotus and Prince. Hell, even now-defunct British oddballs WU LYF made their TV debut stateside.
Television in America is overflowing with music, some artists, such as Reggie Watts or Tyler the Creator even have their own shows. Frankly, the fact that the only regular home most music has on British TV is Jools Holland should be an embarrassment to us all, is Seasick Steve (again) really the best we have to offer?
This is nothing against Jools, who had FKA Twigs, Jungle and Jack White as guests on his last series; it’s just that he’s it. A one man line of defence against Rita Ora doing her worst Rihanna impression on Graham Norton or Ben Howard generally being considered anything more than the current ‘beard holding an acoustic guitar’.
Music channels such as MTV, VH1 and whichever chart-riddled terrestrial filth you used to watch as a kid have died and nothing has replaced them on the small screen. The internet is miles ahead with radio stations such as KEXP hosting full gigs, NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts fulfilling the ‘quirky’ quota and Boileroom expanding into new, non-DJ pastures. If TV wants to remain relevant it’s time to catch up.