OPINION27 April 2010

Where are the music tribes?

In the past life was simple. You could tell the type of music a person was into just by the way they looked. Liking a certain kind of music generally meant that you dressed a certain way, you identified with a musical style, its culture, its background and everything that that entailed. In the ‘good old days’ bi-polarity was the norm – Mods and Rockers, Skinheads and Hairies, to name a few from cultural pre-history.

More recently the world of youth identity became a more fractured lens. Our work in 2006 with Channel 4, and the ‘Find Your Tribe’ game we initiated, operated, ostensibly, in a world of 22 tribes. (“Nathan Barleys”, where are you now?) Tribe-spotting was a more subtle art and eclecticism was on the rise.

Now, we find ourselves a fresh space. People still do get into music: it is still the same universal language it always has been. And yes, certain musical styles still bring with them defined codes of conduct, language and modes of dress. Yet eclecticism has grown rather than abated: it would not be uncommon for a young person today to be into say, grime, electro, nu-folk and Indie. Perhaps more critically, the evolving (mostly online) means and channels of connection have changed and loosened the bonds of commitment. In a very real sense it is easier to “get connected”. But the nature of that commitment has changed: and with lower costs comes lower commitment. Now you can readily buy into the music without feeling the need to buy the badge, the T-shirt or even the music.

Belonging to a music scene used to require a lot of effort. You had to buy albums, read the magazine articles and go to the gigs. All of which meant you were a lot more connected to a scene on a personal level. Now, anyone with internet access can generate what can seem like a greater immersion: instantly listening to the music, getting the latest insider views and communicating with any scene’s exponents.

Yet as you “richly” engage, so you are detached. You feel this detachment. You know listening in to music on your computer isn’t quite the same as being there… but it is so much easier. To access the most obscure music now requires a few clicks of the mouse, not the nerve and nous to follow mysterious trails to obscure clubs. And you can be in three places or more all at the same time.

The evaporating financial commitment is well documented. Over the past 40 years the price of an album has fallen from being a major investment decision to something most almost expect to get for free.

But I would argue that it is sheer ease that is truly undermining music’s ability to fashion tribal identities. Consider…

Then: you listened to the radio with a blank cassette at the ready to tape a new unreleased track by a favourite artist. On the day of release, you traipsed down to the shop to buy it for the exclusive B sides.

Now: you type an artist’s name into a search engine and download the song.

It was effort that spawned music driven tribes: it was behaviour that shaped and reinforced attitudes. In 2010 tribal identities driven by contemporary music are on the wane. While scenes and styles of the past are aped these are largely unrelated to what is currently happening in music.

So, as we flick from half-listened track to track on our mp3s, we can reflect on the fact that today fashion is more likely to infuse music than the other way around. Hmm. Let’s quickly click on a few links. The glut of bands recently emerged from the East End of London do not sound the same or reflect any kind of musical genre. But hold on a minute. Look at them: S.C.U.M; O. CHILDREN; RED DRAPES; Islington Boys Club. They all dress a certain way, go to the same venues, and speak the same language. But it is not the music that is the tribal anchor.