ANNA WESTWELL looks at Bootle’s individuality against the backdrop of identikit music industry productions.
On the third Tuesday of term Lewis Bootle, tradioo’s Unsigned Male Artist of the Year 2015, launched his new EP The Seed at The Monarch in Camden. He began by jumping on stage, grabbing the mic, and welcoming the mishmash of attendees: a mixture of his 20-something friends, older men in suits who had hoped for a normal Tuesday at the pub, and students. He opened with ‘Confused’ from his new EP, the first of three songs performed without a backing band (followed by ‘Summer Flies’ and ‘Earthlings’); these showed off his soulful voice and thought provoking lyrics as he reflected on how little he knows about growing older.
The band then joined him, and Bootle launched into ‘The Goldfish’, a seemingly frivolous song about life from the point of view of a goldfish, and the more serious ‘The Seed’ about watching a relationship grow. The tracks emphasised Bootle’s diversity as a songwriter, moving between the light-hearted and the meaningful with ease. The band added to his delivery, with back-up vocals allowing for punchy choruses, the pure glee on Bootle’s face encouraging the audience to join in. Bootle then put his guitar down and invited female singer-songwriter Orla Gartland on stage to accompany his singing of ‘The Price of It All’, a moving, harmony-filled tribute to a girl struggling on her own two feet.
The gig picked up tempo again for my personal favourite, the supposed last song of the show, ‘James Taylor’. Bootle and the band responded to the audience’s excitement by jumping around together on stage, grinning. During the encore, amidst shouts of ‘BOOTLE, BOOTLE, BOOTLE’, lyricist Gecko was invited onstage, who features in his biggest hit ‘Festival Band’. They hugged each other, giggled in between verses, and eventually jumped off the stage to clear a circle in the audience. The song ended, and Bootle, drenched in sweat, sincerely thanked each of us for coming (pointing at as many people in the audience as possible, shouting ‘and thanks to you, and you, and you’), receiving clamorous applause and ongoing cheers of support.
Bootle’s energy and enjoyment throughout his 45-minute set was utterly authentic; his songs so clearly spoke of his own experiences and his own emotions, that you left the gig feeling a connection to the artist. Perhaps it was the small size of the pub venue or the lyrics in Bootle’s songs, but this gig reminded me of many values in music that we seem to be losing in favour of bright lights and spectacular shows. Music the art-form has in many ways been transformed into the money-making tactic of a monolithic industry. As an unsigned artist, Bootle managed to provide one of the most affecting performances I have ever seen. But does this mean he will never make it big?
When the global music industry can spend $4.3 billion a year on advertisement and marketing, how could unsigned, skilled artists like Lewis Bootle ever break through? Without the producers, managers and senior supervisors, all altering songs to fit their formulas for success, Bootle’s songs remain beautifully simple. Though this may be the reason for his lack of commercial success, it is his searing honesty that gives Bootle’s music its charm and, more importantly, its individuality—a quality that has become increasingly rare in the mainstream. By filtering all new releases through a chain of command, most new music aiming to top the charts will inevitably sound the same.
Only three music labels are considered ‘major’; Universal, Sony and Warner Music. Between them, they control 78% of the market, holding a monopoly over distribution, publishing and manufacturing. They also control lyrics, feeding a branded prioritisation of sex, drugs and love-songs that all deliver the same story, with melodies created for the sole purpose of grabbing your attention. Labels rarely take risks; they have worked out what is needed to boost sales, and any songs that don’t adhere to their money-making patterns struggle to be heard. The IFPI estimated that it costs between $500,000 and $2 million to successfully break an artist into the industry–obviously, they will only be willing to make this investment with a reasonable guarantee of return. The only way labels can ensure this, is by sticking to familiar formulas. Labels are restricting the music we are exposed to and inhibiting fluidity in the charts: artists who provide something dangerously unique, like Bootle, often fail.
While Bootle is far from the only artist to inject vitality and character into a dull grey industry backdrop, it is clear that without any industry support it is incredibly difficult to support yourself as a musician: we continue to hear stories of artists whose own wishes have been squashed by the corporate overlords. The industry, by and large, continues to be concerned with profit: with a global revenue of $15 billion in 2015, they clearly know what they’re doing.
We cannot lose what truly matters in music. Bootle’s performance demonstrates that an alternative to the pre-packaged industry ‘stars’ is possible. The gig reminded me of an essential element of music and live performance, one which the wider industry needs to re-find and which Bootle demonstrates so powerfully: its ability to connect.