Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be in the music business

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, especially in the music business. The sounds of the past have now become the soundtrack of our present and our appetite seems insatiable. Retro-inspired artists have become mega-stars, bands from the past are selling more than ever before and, at the time of going to press, a 92-year World War II singer was the best selling artist in the UK. How incredible is that? What happened to every generation throwing a hero up the pop charts? Buried. Buried in the past. And with good reason, old is often perceived as good. Whatever your vintage, retro music makes you feel warm and nostalgic whether it’s recycled or the real thing. And that’s great for business.

Story by Andy Round

Just look at the latest crop of super retro stars. Amy Winehouse’s first album Frank was a jazz-influenced collection that showcased an unforgettable Nina Simone voice. By the time the vintage tattoos, old-school big hair and modern addictions took over, the formula was perfect with Back To Black winning five Grammys, three Ivor Novellos and a BRIT.

Singers Adele and Duffy cite Winehouse as a major influence and share her love of classic soul melody. In return they have been rewarded with Grammys and multi-million record sales. Joss Stone’s eclectic mix of blues and soul has given her album sales of 10 million while James Morrison and Paolo Nutini are regulars at the top of European charts with their versions of Blue Eyed Soul. Michael Bublé, meanwhile, has sold 20 million albums worldwide and haunted the number one spots in his native Canada as well as the US with a distinctive award-winning style that encompasses genres that range from Sinatrae-sque ballads to Motown classics.

So what’s it all about? The same old, same old basically. A strong melody, a catchy chorus, a song that tugs the heartstrings and a wonderful voice never go out of fashion, especially if you craft these elements to give them a modern lyrical spin. Winehouse’s Back to Black gift was to take the irresistible hooks and chorus structure of soul and 1960s medley and make them her own, using acerbic lyrics that chimed with a noughties generation.

When Duffy first started out, her musical collaborators loaded her iPod with Burt Bacharach, Phil Spector and Scott Walker. It’s no wonder she became such a princess of original retro pop, effortlessly channelling the spirit of Dusty Springfield. Joss Stone was brought up on a strict diet of Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and James Brown, by the time she was 14 she had learned every trick in the soul book. By the time she was 18 she was performing with her heroes she was crafting her own contemporary classics.

But in wider context the success of Duffy, Winehouse, Bublé, Stone, Nutini et al is a reflection of our contemporary cultural obsession with nostalgia. It doesn’t matter how old we are or what our musical memories have become, the version of the “classic soundtrack of our youth” is irresistible transporting us to a golden time free of responsibility. Unsurprisingly, bands of the 1960s (Rolling Stones), ’70s (Sex Pistols), ’80s (The Human League) and even the ’90s (Blur) continue to tour. And you can’t blame them. Nostalgia sells lots of tickets and in a time of free downloads that retirement revenue for middle-aged musicians is very welcome.

However, retro-satisfaction provided by James Morrison and his contemporaries also speaks to some of a purer age when songs were crafted and sung rather than dubbed, mashed up or synthesised. And that’s even if we tend to forget the songs at the Motown ‘Hit Factory’ were churned out and matched to singers on a production line.

But classic cover versions by modern singers are gold dust instantly connecting the past to the present, even if the artists singing them have a wealth of successful original material. Bublé covers Me And Mrs Jones, For Once In My Life and Come Fly With Me, Joss Stone consistently performs Aretha classics and Amy Winehouse, Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine. These are all respectful nods to the masters of their craft and all immediate crowd pleasers.

Old song nostalgia is omnipresent. Look at the worldwide success of the film and musical Mamma Mia! where, undoubtedly, the impossibly feel-good music of ABBA will live for ever. At the end of 2009 the entire Beatles back catalogue of digitally remastered music was reissued (as well as a computer game) and within five days had sold a million copies in the US and occupied 16 positions in the UK top 75. When Michael Jackson died, 31 tracks made it into the top 100.

For many people, their musical heroes are dying out and not being replaced by anything comparable and that fuels even greater nostalgia. Cover versions on Pop Idol are not the same thing as the real thing. And perhaps that the contemporary cult of celebrity does not give artists time to catch their breath let alone mature to greatness. How many modern iconic artists with serious potential for longevity can you name? And what about those that are under the age of 30?

Naturally, we live in different times where the currency of fame is judged by tabloid exposure and YouTube hits, so the concept of celebrity is more fleeting and disposable than ever before. Forget 15 minutes of fame it’s more like 15 seconds. How would Sinatra have fared in this brave new world of download instant celebrity? How would we have viewed him if he had appeared as fresh-faced 25-year-old on the X-Factor? It’s great that we never had to find out.

One nostalgic classic that continues to endure is Vera Lynn. Astonishingly at the age of 92 she was back at the top of the British charts with a collection of songs at the end of last year singing songs such as We’ll Meet Again. She was the “forces favourites” during World War II and also enjoyed massive success during the times of recession in the early 1950s. The war in Afghanistan and new recessionary times of hardship have undoubtedly prompted her revival, but there’s something else. “Lovely tunes have been out of favour for a while, perhaps we need a bit of change,” said Times UK columnist Michele Hanson recently. Perhaps, they never really go out of style.


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