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UK & US: Culture vs Entertainment

UK & US: Culture vs Entertainment

There isn’t much that I miss since moving from London to Stockholm. Something I do miss, or at least sorta long for, is the vibe. Not necessarily the LDN vibe but more how “brits” (as in the generic word for people who live on British Isles) approach life.

Literally a day or two after moving to London in ‘98 I started working in the warehouse at a record distributor in North London. Going around “pulling & packing” records wasn’t what I wanted to be doing but being surrounded by literally the world’s best reggae & ragga, UK drum ‘n’ bass and US post-hardcore was a dream.

I remember the people too. Like the guy with the sovereign ring and one of those cool Nokia banana phones. He liked to have a couple strong K Ciders for lunch EVERY day. Then there was the American dude who just walked around off his face ALL DAY.

I got out of there eventually, only took about 9 months till I got a job in Creation Records’ A&R department. On my last day in the warehouse before I left I was wandering around pulling records when I started to sweat. Then I noticed they had some happy hardcore on the PA. I HATE happy hardcore but on that specific day nothing had ever sounded better. I knew something was up when everyone kept laughing at me every time I took a sip of my drink left on one of the record trollies. The American guy had spiked it with an E. I spent the rest of that last shift off my tits.

Everybody knows Brits love to party and that definitely contributes to the vibe. However I think there is a lot more to why the UK feels different than other english speaking countries. Take “club culture” – easy to say that it is (was) a drug thing but it’s really about shared experience. In fact I think shared experience is one of biggest influences on British arts and culture. The conceptual artist Jeremey Deller talks about this in his documentary Everybody In The Place. Deller suggests that the Acid House parties of the 80’s and early 90’s were an acknowledgement of the death of the industrial revolution: communal celebrations back in those same warehouses where it all began.

This shared experience also exists on a national level. The UK, like most european countries, sits across only one time zone. This means when people talk charts and number ones and experience those together they do so in a much different way than would ever be possible in North America. I suggest this is why press and radio were such massive forces for so many years. If BBC Radio 1 played a single the whole country could experience it at the same moment. This is in stark contrast to the US which has 6 different time zones.

“…in the UK, music appreciation is woven into the culture whereas in the US, music is treated as entertainment.”

As much as I see shared experience as a defining characteristic in British culture there is another even more important one. This difference is strongest between the UK and the US, the world’s two most important English music markets. Simply put, in the UK, music appreciation is woven into the culture whereas in the US, music is treated as entertainment. I am not saying music isn’t appreciated in the US, rather it is appreciated and experienced very differently. There’s a feeling of community in the UK because the music experience is instilled in the broader culture. In contrast the US is much more (duh) individualistic and communal, musical experiences tend to be marginalised as fringe or radical (Burning Man) or dismissed by all but those taking part (Grateful Dead, Phish). That’s definitely gonna piss some people off but I think it holds true, especially when described using examples…

Start by thinking about what I am saying in a sports context. I love going to hockey games; the sound of the puck, a body check against the boards. It’s all pretty chilled out aside from a few hosers. My experience with North American sports meant I was ill prepared for my first UK Premier League game back in 1999. Separate turnstile entrances for the away team’s supporters who then sit in a separate end of the stands and flanked by tons of police. When the home team starts chanting they are chanting at YOU. Ask any true football supporter. It’s not about being entertained, it’s a way of life. The results literally determine people’s mood for the rest of that week.

The comparisons are the same in music. In the US you have Coachella where I am told you can’t even have a pint when watching a band. In the UK? You have the dance tent at Glastonbury – another world. Glastonbury isn’t an event people attend just for fun, it’s a right of passage, a yearly pilgrimage. I’ve been reading about the 30th anniversary of Spike island. Does not sound great though I’d take it over Woodstock 99 any day. The list goes on.

I am definitely not saying that music appreciation isn’t present in US culture. That would be denying 50 or 60 years of popular music… Moreover, how music is presented, experienced and appreciated is radically different in the US than in the UK. I know tv isn’t as important any more but think back to the UK’s music tv cultural legacy – Top Of The Pops, The Tube. Performances on these shows are stuff of legend. Sure the US had American Bandstand which ran for 37 years, roughly as long as TOTP’s 42 years. There were also shows like Midnight Special, I frequently watch KISS’ performance and wonder what it would have been like to see that live in 1975. My favourite US tv show was David Sanborn’s Night Music which was produced by Lorne Michaels of SNL fame, though I guess it was Hal Willner who was the real genius behind the bookings. The Pixies debut TV performance is exceptional as is Sonic Youth’s. However it is the true greats – Miles Davis and Dr. John and Mavis Staples – who stand out across the series. Unfortunately, Night Music was broadcast, you guessed it, late at night and ran for only two years.

I think the UK’s music appreciation goes much deeper than those shows ever could. Jools Holland is a great example of that. [Side note, Jools plays with a lot of the artists he has on the show, Sanborn did the same, can’t be a coincidence? Somehow I feel like I already know it’s not]. One of the reasons is Jools like other UK shows are focal points for all music fans. They didn’t necessarily only push the “biggest” or the most obscure, instead challenged the viewer by combining both. I did tv promotion for a couple of years and succeeded in getting Booker T on Jools in 2009. The other guests? Grizzly Bear, Gurrumul, Manic Street Preachers and a very young yet already massive Taylor Swift. This level of focused diversity in music programming simply doesn’t exist in the US. And it’s the diversity which gave the UK media it’s power, be it on Radio 1, Radio 2 or in the press like the NME. The art of pulling in listeners with larger artists and easing in more challenging artists very early in is a uniquely UK skill. One proven by early UK media support for (initially) sonically challenging bands like the White Stripes, who were in heavy rotation in the UK long before US listeners heard them on the radio.

Again though the diversity of the programming is a reflection of uniqueness of the UK which is combined with an earlier time slot, a single time zone heightens the already adventurous listening attitudes. That is why careers were literally made by band’s performances on UK tv shows, covers of magazines or by radio play, just ask bands like The Hives.

The world is a lot different now, time and space is much more fragmented. It would be easy to assume I would be longing for the good old days. Quite the opposite. The world, especially the music world has become much smaller and people are more connected than ever. Shared experience has become something between like minded people instead of those randomly tethered together via time and place. Feels to me like in a lot of ways these relationships are more real even if they aren’t tied to the physical world in the same way as before. Not to mention the power created by the loss of dependency on someone else to tell you when and where to watch or what to listen to. Communities control their own shared experiences, independent of the wider world, if they so choose. The opportunity to create a sense of community in a sea of other communities is something to celebrate. I wonder what effects they have on how people collectively and individually experience music?