Huddersfield University Professor of Music Rupert Till has become head of the world’s leading research body for popular music. He speaks to Laura Reid about all things pop.
In a desert in the North Africa, two hour drive from the nearest road, Rupert Till was asked about some of Britain’s most famous musicians. The Beatles were high on his list of replies.
“The response [from the people I was talking to] was who are they? They had never heard of The Beatles. They were living in the middle of nowhere. I mentioned some other musicians and they didn’t really know many of them either but then I asked them who they listened to.
"They got their phone out and they played some Sudanese Arabic music but then they also said they liked Usher and Michael Jackson was one of their biggest ones too.”
The Professor of Music at the University of Huddersfield recalls the story from his time doing research in Sudan, as he reflects on how pop music differs around the world.
“It can be very different, but it can also be remarkably the same,” he says. “In some ways it was different in that the Arabic music they’d played to me I’d never heard before but on the other hand, they were there playing a Michael Jackson tack in the middle of the desert. So sometimes, it’s remarkable how similar it is.”
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“There are some things that are the same - you get songs everywhere and you get music to dance to everywhere,” he adds. “But there’s a local influence I think that gives it its character.”
After 25 years of teaching and studying in the field of pop, Till has recently been appointed chairman of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM). Founded in 1981, the global organisation promotes the scholarship and analysis of pop and the processes involved in its production and consumption.
“One of the really interesting things about popular music is that the things that are happening in our society often happen first in our popular music,” Prof Till explains. “So by studying what’s happening in pop, you can often find out what’s going on, in quite a deep way in our society.
"For example, in pop music, the likes of digital copyright and sampling, those sorts of issues around digital culture impacting on the world, first started happening back in the 90s, really quite early on.”
One of the biggest changes in the industry itself has been the shift from the physical - records, cassettes and CDs - to the digital, with online video and music sites and options for downloads and streaming.
“People have access to so much music and so quickly,” reflects Till, who has composed for film and television. “You can find almost any piece of music in seconds whereas in the past you kind of hoarded your collection of pieces of plastic, whether they were CDs or records. You loved each one because you didn’t have so many.
“I think that shift has changed everything. The big change is that in the past there were a small number of people that were able to make really quite a lot of money selling plastic to people and making a profit on it. A small number of very big stars and made a huge amount of money.
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“What’s happening now is computer technology means that anyone can make music of a quality that is as good as music made in the bigger studios. With a computer you can make a song and release it to the public. Anyone can do that.
"What you find then is there are lots more people making a living out of music...I think that’s a positive thing. It’s a kind of de-regulation of music making.”
In the past quarter-century, Till, who grew up in York and now lives in Sheffield, has also witnessed the study and teaching of popular music given greater focus. When he himself was a music student, he says there was no option to explore pop.
“It was always classical music because that’s all you could study when I was younger. There literally weren’t any degrees in popular music, certainly in the UK.”
“It was just historical really,” he adds. “The teaching of classical music in universities had been going on for hundreds of years and popular music just wasn’t studied. It wasn’t an academic subject at all. If you wanted to be a pop musician, you usually just left school and went and did it.”
Now an active performer and electronic music producer under the persona of Professor Chill, Till spent his first years after graduating working in the music industry, playing in bands and running a sound and lighting company.
In 1994, he took a job at Barnsley College helping students to write music. Within three months he was a full-time lecturer there, one of the few places in the country then offering a course in popular music.
Two years later, he moved to Bretton Hall College, which he says had a strong reputation for popular music. “A lot of the students were interested in songwriting,” he says. “So I started one of the first curricula in songwriting anywhere in the world really.”
That songwriting included the composing of pop - and it came at a time, Till says, in the 1990s, when the industry began to be taken more seriously. “Successive governments introduced ministries for culture and they also did some analysis into the amount of money that music brought into the UK.
“In the 90s and the days of Britpop for example, popular music was the UK’s number one export industry. I think generally there was an understanding that this isn’t just people playing in bands mucking about, this is a serious industry.”
When Till arrived at the University of Huddersfield in 2002, there was no study of pop in its music department. Now, it is a chosen subject area for almost half the students.
“I think most people see the music industry as a handful of popstars who appear on TV or radio,” he says. “But the reality is there’s a massive industry that sits behind that - everything from selling and making instruments through to working in marketing and distribution and writing music for TV and video games.
“It’s a very big industry and one or our largest export industries. The reality is Britain is not so much known for heavy industry or manufacturing. Outside the UK, it’s known for things like the Beatles and Shakespeare. Music, popular music in particular, is one of the things Britain is famous for.”
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Yorkshire, he says, has diverse music scenes that have developed in different ways. “Liverpool, Manchester and Yorkshire have all, from time to time, had flowering music scenes and it’s like it moves from one northern city to another. As people get bored of the same stuff coming out of London, they start to look north.
“The advantage of not being in that capital city bubble means that something characteristic and different, a local scene can develop, which has something special about it - whether that’s the Leeds clubbing scene of the 80s or Sheffield’s electronic and guitar music. I think the fact it’s had a Yorkshire voice to it gives it a character that’s made it popular.”
Till serves as IASPM chair initially for a two year term.