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Ed Sheeran is killing music

The rise of polished solo singer-songwriters such as Sheeran, Smith and Sandé is stifling rock ‘n’ roll’s sweaty solidarity

In February 2015, for my day job as rock and pop critic at The Times, I interviewed Noel Gallagher on his post-Oasis life as a solo artist. Gallagher had written and produced his second album, Chasing Yesterday, mostly in isolation, helped out by a handful of backing musicians but essentially doing everything himself. He called the process “a total pain in the arse”, but the results were satisfying: Chasing Yesterday combines Oasis-style big choruses with jazz-tinged expansiveness. Gallagher is always an effusive interview. What really fired him up, however, wasn’t his own music but the current dominating force in pop: singer-songwriters.

“They’re shit-bags, really,” said Gallagher, referring to the generation of mostly male singer-songwriters currently selling millions more albums than anyone else, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith in particular. “No fucker wants to be in a band anymore because it’s too much of a struggle. So we have a generation who all studied music at college, they all had media training, and the head of PR at the major label they’re signed to told them all what to do. The generation I came were never afforded that luxury, which is why we were scallywags. We were coming up against the system rather than being a product of it.”

Gallagher is right: singer-songwriters are killing rock’n’roll. A great night out at a noisy, sweaty gig demands not a dewy-eyed man or woman with an acoustic guitar singing about their latest relationship problems but a band who share with their audience an us-against-the-world mentality. The Ramones had it, the Rolling Stones had it, even the Beatles had it, but Sam Smith does not have it. And the reason why the singer-songwriter is taking over the world is, like most things, down to economics.

The old model for being in a band was: convince your friends to pick up instruments and learn the basics, find a rehearsal space to practice, and get in a tour bus to play one pongy pub back room after another. Then, if lucky, you make your way up to the next stage and play mid-sized, sticky-floored venues. Then follows a record deal, and signing off the dole, and keeping going until the usual reasons — lack of inspiration, musical differences, not being able to stand the sight of each other for one night more — pulls the whole thing apart.

Now the rehearsal rooms have been sold off and converted into flats. The pongy back rooms have been spruced up and turned into gastropubs, king scallop carpaccio on a bed of pink grapefruit taking the place of pork scratchings and a packet of KP nuts. The mid-sized venues are now cafes or branches of Giraffe, and it is no longer possible to use unemployment benefit as an unofficial arts grant because you’ll lose it unless you are seen to be actively seeking a job you really don’t want to get. All of that makes being in a band untenable for the vast majority of people.

There will always be a demand for new music, however, and singer-songwriters, mostly serious-minded, middle- or upper class young men and women with enough family support to develop their dream in isolation, have filled the void. Most major studios have closed down due to the rise of digital home recording, but even making an album in your bedroom costs money. That’s why people making music on equipment bought by their parents now dominate the charts.

If this situation gave rise to modern equivalents to Joni Mitchell or Neil Young, singular, eccentric talents driven by an undeniable need for self expression, we would be in a much more creative situation than we are today, but the worst of it is that most of the popular singer-songwriters are the public face of songs made by committee. After Gallagher ended his rant against them, I pointed out that he was, in fact, a singer-songwriter himself.

“I am, but I don’t consider myself as one because do you know what really bends my head? Singer-songwriters who don’t write their own songs.”

In 2013, Emeli Sandé won the Ivor Novello award for best song. Nine people went up to collect the award at the ceremony, none of them Emeli Sandé. Ed Sheeran, who in June will become the first-ever male solo artist to play Wembley Stadium for three consecutive nights, worked with co-writers on most of the songs on his million selling 2014 album X. Even Adele’s Someone Like You, the ultimate cri de coeur, was a co-write; Adele penned her tale of heartbreak in Los Angeles with professional songwriter Dan Wilson.

None of this would matter if today’s most popular singer-songwriters were coming up with something dynamic and affecting, but for the most part they are sentimental and anodyne. Sam Smith’s Stay With Me is about the feeling of loneliness following a one-night stand, but the song offers a facsimile of emotion rather than the real thing; not surprising given it took three different songwriters (five if you include Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, credited due to Stay With Me’s similarity to Petty’s I Won’t Back Down). Songs written by teams of professionals may work as radio-friendly pop, but they won’t reveal much about the human condition.

The nice, inoffensive nature of the modern singer-songwriter is also a reaction to the horrors of the age of the information overload. We are bombarded with images and stories of brutal acts of terrorism on a daily basis and we have music on commercial radio that neither challenges nor engages in an emotionally demanding way. We have an extreme of anodyne niceness to counter extremes of horror.

There is a reaction to the rise of the inoffensive singer-songwriter, thank God. In early March I went to a concert on the NME awards tour, always a good barometer of what’s happening in alternative music. Troublemakers made up the bill. There were the Charles Manson-endorsing Brixton squat-dwellers Fat White Family, paranoid psychedelic trio The Wytches, and a duo of thuggish punks called Slaves.

Headliners the Palma Violets were more straightforward, but they offered a shouty sense of punk solidarity not seen since The Libertines. None of these bands worked with superstar producers or professional songwriters, and the result was character and vibrancy lacking in the mainstream. None are likely to bothering the charts any time soon either, but it’s good to know that the singer-songwriter hasn’t quite killed rock’n’roll. They’ve just pushed it back to where it came from: the underground. 

Chief rock and pop critic of The Times, Will Hodgkinson is a music journalist. He is the author of the music books Guitar Man, Song Man and The Ballad Of Britain and the memoir The House Is Full Of Yogis. He also writes for Mojo and Vogue and is the presenter of the Sky Arts series Songbook.

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