From Kate Bush’s surprise tour to U2’s giveaway and Taylor Swift upsetting the internet, Andy Welch ponders a funny old year for music
2014, like most years, began on January 1. You could, however, argue that 2014 as a musical year, didn’t really get going until about March 21. That was the day Kate Bush announced her first tour since 1979.
Of course, before that, there were the small matters of Outkast announcing their reunion, Daft Punk performing at the Grammys and The Beatles celebrating 50 years since landing in America for the first time and playing The Ed Sullivan Show, but none really had the same level of frantic news coverage as Ms Bush’s return to the stage.
Whether it was indeed a massive event, or merely that all the teenage boys who lusted after her back in the early-Eighties are now old enough to be professional journalists running newspapers is up for debate, but news of her residency at The Hammersmith Apollo spread far and wide.
The eventual shows in September were spectacular, theatrical, moving affairs, and went some way to justifying the hysterical reaction earlier on.
Surprises are nothing new on the internet. There are numerous advantages to ‘dropping’ an album on the public unawares. There’s the initial impact, garnering far more news stories and all-important social media updates than a boring old-fashioned release, it somehow makes the artist seem more contemporary and tech-savvy, there are no pesky negative reviews providing bumps in the road before release, and, perhaps most importantly for the artists involved, there’s far less chance of the album leaking.
Imagine working on a record for the best part of a year, only for a disgruntled worker in a CD pressing plant to upload its content to the internet, for people to get for free, out of context.
Surprise albums are, in 2014 at least, a little passe. D’Angelo’s just released one, ending a 14-year period of inactivity, but it wasn’t quite the same as Beyonce surprising the world with her self-titled album last year.
It seems if you really wanted to make waves with music lovers this year, you had to force your album upon them, whether they wanted it or not.
That’s exactly what U2 did when Songs Of Innocence appeared on the computer and/or phone of everyone with an iTunes account in September.
Of course, it was lambasted - U2 seem to be incredibly unpopular for one of the world’s biggest-ever bands, with music fans reeling, perhaps justifiably, to have an album foisted upon them without asking for it.
Nevertheless, 26 million people elected to download and keep the album - that’s 5% of iTunes’ customer base - making U2’s 13th album one of the most popular of all time.
The music itself was relatively weak. This was no The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby, but the impact was to some degree far greater, proving that in 2014, it’s not necessarily the music that matters, but the way in which it’s delivered.
And, from a money point of view, U2 will have been laughing all the way to the bank, having been paid a rumoured 500million US dollars by Apple. Some free giveaway that turned out to be.
Conversely, Taylor Swift, the artist responsible for a staggering 22% of all music sold in the US this year, decided against utilising one of the internet’s latest innovations when it came to her recent album, 1989.
After withdrawing her entire back catalogue from streaming services such as Spotify in November, she said: “All I can say is that music is changing so quickly, and the landscape of the music industry itself is changing so quickly, that everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment.
“I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists and creators of this music. And I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.”
Strong words from Swifty. Spotify founder Daniel Ek came back with stats on how much money she would’ve been paid if 1989 had been left on his streaming service, and more worryingly, message boards lit up with entitled internet users decrying the fact they couldn’t listen to her music for free any more. Oh the humanity. If only there was another way to listen to the music of Taylor Swift...
It looked like Pennsylvania’s favourite child had the last laugh, with 1989 going on to sell more than 1.3 million copies in its first week of sale in the US alone, becoming the first album to go platinum there all year. In withdrawing her music from streaming services, Swift all but single-handedly saved the music industry.
Also landing some big numbers was Pharrell Williams, whose single Happy is America’s biggest-selling song of the year, shifting six-and-a-half million copies since January. His career turnaround, from out-of-favour producer four or five years ago to the world’s most bankable male artist and collaborator, is further proof that form is temporary, but class lasts forever.
It wasn’t all about the Yanks in 2014, however. Ed Sheeran has become one of the UK’s best exports since the Royal family, breaking just about every record it’s possible to break while touring the world this year.
Sam Smith has also had an incredible year. Quietly going about his business, the gentle singer is the only artist to sell a million copies of his album on both sides of the Atlantic, while One Direction’s career shows no signs of slowing down, no matter how many stupid things they tweet or how much Harry Styles’ hair makes him look like a tiny lion.
Reformations, are, once again, big business, perhaps the biggest of all being Fleetwood Mac, who finally persuaded Christine McVie to rejoin the band for a proper reunion.
To a lesser extent - maybe because all the best bands have already gotten back together - The Libertines reunited for a run of typically shambolic shows in the summer, while even less glamorously, S Club 7 reformed for Children In Need in November and have since sold out an arena show next year, showing that there’s nothing as powerful as nostalgia.
Shoegaze fans of the Nineties will be pleased that Slowdive and Ride got back together this year, while Beady Eye, Klaxons and The Civil Wars split up.
Finally, let’s spare a thought for those no longer with us - Phil Everly, Pete Seeger, Gerry Goffin, Bobby Womack, Lynsey de Paul, Mark Bell, Tommy Ramone, Johnny Winter, Jack Bruce and Ian McLagan. Gone but not forgotten.