All Talk: How the cult of personality is helping kill the music industry

He arrives like a god, the crowd’s clamour suddenly infectious, spreading through its serried ranks until the roar deafens. His hair is perfect, his prophet eyes ablaze, and with arms outstretched, he is here to instruct, to bring a message, to evangelise, and his followers have each paid handsomely for the privilege. But this is no church of a latter-day saint. This is a different kind of cult. This is a rock concert, and the elder statesman arriving at centre stage is the seller of a new kind of hocus-pocus.

The stadium has been chosen as the best place for the Rock Star to make his proclamations, because he knows, like his commercial team, that his acolytes will appear. Glassy-eyed, they will drift in to hear what he has to impart. But what the Rock Star does, instead, is give face to his personality, one which is balanced upon the foundations of his well-documented lifestyle, the mainstream media long having tracked his every move with craven reviews and gushing praise.

And now he has bought into his own hype, and with dwindling inspiration and record sales falling year on year, the monkey on his back digs in its claws. So, caught in a trap, the Rock Star begins the sham and is buoyed by the Establishment against which he once railed as a young man, his humility now all but forgotten.

“One thing you’ll learn when you’re in the business of selling utter shite to the Great British Public is that there’s really no bottom to where they’ll go.” These words, written by John Niven, can be found in his novel ‘Kill Your Friends’, and of the framework in which the Rock Star operates, few words have hit home as succinctly.

So the game is up. It’s time for a rethink.

But the problem is this: there exists the lie that the Rock Star has lived a fated life, that he now deserves the unthinking adulation and is beyond criticism, that he has ascended to a throne that is, by rights, his, his own perception of himself now warped by decades of unflagging media sycophancy.

But look a little more closely and you’ll see his eyes betraying a terrible worry concerning his artistic relevance. An artist? you cry. Surely an artist creates because he must, not because of the money he might make?

But think again and see his 1,000-yard stare boring from a face digitalised and disseminated, the face behind the endless records, each one sounding like the one that came before it as sales plummet, yet as sales plummet his major record label fails to take note. It rolls with the icon, gives him free rein to do as he pleases in the absence of a cogent strategy that might well be couched as ‘Take time out, recover your poise, find your muse, write, then return’.

But the Rock Star won’t heed such advice. Instead, he becomes a pastiche of himself, and the public, galled and bored, keeps their money in their pockets.

This is today, with Rock Stars of the past caught up and brainwashed by the cult of their own personalities. It’s a business model that fails a little bit more with each passing year, and with each passing year the value and inherent cachet of once glittering back catalogues gets buried under the modern mulch of overreaching egos.

There seems to be only one path forward for the Rock Star: to inflate the original idea that the public first fell in love with, shoot it full of formaldehyde, try to look hip and dangerous as you once did, and start selling the old mantra as a new mantra while convincing yourself that the public, whose collective amnesia is the most consistent thing upon which you can rely, will lap it up. Because they will. Niven was right. They have to. They have to believe in something, because to believe in nothing is unacceptable. They must fill the void that sits at the centre of their starved, western lives.

It is here where a new evangelism takes root. The Rock Star poses as a redeemer whose records will deliver salvation. His image is everywhere, his enigma now mass produced and snaffled up by the fans as opiate. Yet it’s the worst kind of nostalgia because it comes as a sudden reminder of the star’s lost youth as he attempts to monetise any existing scrap of paraphernalia that was once associated with said youth. It’s the selling off of the past for a paltry gain. It should be beneath him to resort to such tactics, but since the music industry has long ago refused to invest long-term in new music – from which he’d be able to draw inspiration – he has been forced to put his ego on steroids. Then resell it.

Only the accompanying smell of formaldehyde is too strong, and when he takes to the stage under the lights, rebuffed and rebooted, he notices the half-full seating and the echoing steps of loyal followers who still think it’s 1977.

To face the harsh reality – that the music business is dying off –  is much too hard a task for some.

For star and fan alike, inspiration has vanished down a rabbit hole and all that remains is the Rock Star’s shopworn mantra for which he became famous in the first place. Self-respect, long since vanquished by his ego, would have seen him retire and secure his legacy. But instead he accepts the title of National Treasure and, with him, the industry staggers on, only able to survive if it chooses to invest in new talent.

Investment in new blood is needed like never before, and the reselling of rock retirees should no longer be an option (much like this rant).

Jason Holmes