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Can mainstream rock stars maintain their integrity?

In August 2013, perpetual underdogs Biffy Clyro headlined the legendary Reading and Leeds festival. After nearly twenty years in the game, it seemed that the Scottish band was finally getting the widespread recognition that their relentless hard work over the years finally deserved.While for most, success on this scale is a badge of honour. But, does this super-level of mainstream success alienate the fan base who got them to where they are today? Can you be a ‘mainstream’ rock star meanwhile holding onto your integrity?

While it is widely known that the likes of Kurt Cobain detested the fame that Nirvana acquired, not all rock stars are as keen to shun the limelight. ‘Selling out’ happens when an act compromises their principals in an attempt to attract a more mainstream audience. As often as it happens, bands spend their early years struggling to make ends meet, and when they finally manage to sign to a record label, said company will encourage them to make their songs radio friendly. Consequently, there seems to be little room for experimentation and many acts have morphed from punk-loving upstarts to producers of standardized ‘arena-rock’. The Black Keys and Kings Of Leon are both bands who’ve become ‘mainstream rock stars’ during the last half of the decade, leading some fans from their earlier days to turn their back on the arguably homogenous material that is now being released.

A more recent example would be the return of Arctic Monkeys. A decade ago, they were a band brought to the forefront of the music industry’s consciousness when their fans uploaded the band’s demos to MySpace. Single ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ when straight to number one when it was released, and caused some to suggest that the band’s success without significant marketing or advertising would mark a change in the industry. However, their current album ‘AM’, with its Dr Dre inspired beats and comparisons to the aforementioned Black Keys, have led some to believe that the band have ‘sold-out’. In one indignant letter published in NME, an alienated fan claimed that the band had become ‘Americanized’; a word which seems to be a signifier of losing one’s integrity.

Unfair though it would be to say that America’s commercial demands are damaging the material that bands produce; there appears to be a definite point during artists’ careers where they feel that they need to break America (and therefore appeal to ‘American’ tastes) in order to make any further progress in their careers. Perhaps the disappearance of Alex Turner’s strong Sheffield accent and a smarter ‘suited and booted’ image is a sign of the pressure felt when trying to break the world’s largest, and toughest, music industry.

A rock band who are keen to hold onto their integrity are Glasgow’s Twin Atlantic. Their debut album ‘Free’ admonished the globalization of the music industry. Their earlier song ‘You’re Turning Into John Wayne‘, could describe the Arctic Monkey’s frontman, amongst others in the industry, as it details how musicians sometimes lose their distinguishing features or sound, to further travel up the road to success. When bands lose sight of their roots, it can alienate the fan base who feel that they’ve helped an act get to the level where they are today. As a result, these fans will be quick to announce the sell-out status of their former favourite bands, now that they no longer tour in a cramped van or come out to meet the audience after a show.

The constant struggle between wishing to make ends meet, and maintaining one’s own principals is a battle often fought. Nobody wants to make bad music, but equally everyone wants to be liked at the end of the day. For some, the path to ‘mainstream success’ is all too tempting; and after years of toil who are we to suggest that bands shouldn’t refine their sound to a catchy, ‘two minutes forty one’?

Hats must be taken off to Paramore then, who, with the release of their pop-tastic single ‘Still Into You’, caught the attention of a mainstream audience, upped their record sales, but still proved on their album that they are capable of writing heartfelt and personal songs. In their case, they haven’t lost too many fans from the early days and with the aforementioned clever choice of singles, have managed to raise their public profile. Sometimes it’s good to see the underdogs win.

Written by India Thomas

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