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Music

Does music television still have a home in 2021?

Once upon a time, music television was simply unmissable, a factor that made it the pinnacle for artists hoping to achieve mainstream levels of success. If an opportunity to perform on TV arose, then the life of a rising musician could transform in an instant, but does it even matter anymore? Is the medium still relevant to a modern musician? 

The BBC’s now-iconic offering, Later with Jools Holland, remains a stalwart of the screen, and since its launch, the show has established itself as an institution of British music television. However, after almost 30 years on the screen, admittedly, it is far from the zeitgeist it once was. While the show might not compete with Strictly Come Dancing or The Great British Bake Off, in terms of viewing figures, Jools Holland has proven there is still a devout audience of music lovers who crave specialist programming.

Over the last year, Later has seen a spike in its popularity during the Friday evening slot on BBC Two in which it occupies. Over 600,000 viewers tuned in for the 2020 series, their highest figure in over a decade. On top of that, short clips posted to YouTube after airing also boast robust numbers.

It only took a handful of days for Wet Leg’s recent performance of ‘Chaise Longue’ to reach over 85,000 views on the platform, for example. Moreover, the integration of YouTube is helping the programme find a younger demographic, an audience less likely to stay home on the weekend to watch BBC Two but will happily watch a clip recommended by their online algorithm. There is still a ferocious appetite for new bands and live performances, yet only one show is still flying the flag.

There’s a reason why Later has been on the air for almost 30 years, and it is a simple format that works brilliantly. However, the system was beginning to look a little tired. Covid forced the BBC to rejig its nucleus, and it now features pre-recorded segments in locations significant to each artist, shining a desperately required light on the independent music venues that have been decimated in recent years. Meanwhile, a big name guest joins Jools to select their favourite performances from the show’s archive, and it finally feels fresh again. 

The lack of competitors isn’t for want of trying. In 2017, the BBC attempted to make a live music programme directed toward a younger audience and was more pop-orientated than its main competitor. However, after just eleven episodes and two series, the exorbitantly produced Sounds Like Friday Night was put on indefinite hiatus. Perhaps, its flaw was that it tried to be something for everyone rather than having a defined personality and didn’t have a specific demographic in mind. Guests on the second series ranged from Snow Patrol to Migos to Gary Barlow to The Streets, and the entire concept felt confused.

However, the pandemic taught everybody that the music is all that matters, and these shows don’t need to be flamboyant, extravagant bonanzas. Thousands tuned in to watch live streams from their favourite artists, and the production value was secondary. 

Even though live music has now returned, there’s still a hunger to discover new artists, and there’s a romanticism aligned to finding an act the old-school way. It’s a more visceral way to enjoy the art form rather than stumbling upon somebody through a faceless algorithm on Spotify, and there is still a place for it in 2021.

Admittedly, there is no equivalent to must-watch television like The Tube during the ’80s, a project that was appointment viewing and held incomparable cultural significance with anything today. Still, that doesn’t mean the format is dead yet. However, its impact might only exist on a niche, specialist scale. The thriving success of NPR’s ‘Tiny Desk’ series on YouTube and La Blogoteque’s ‘Take Away Shows’ have shown that there’s scope for putting a unique spin on traditional musical programming. Both defy convention and are reaping the rewards for their ingenuity.

Sounds Like Friday Night failed because it tried to be a relic of the past instead of taking a fresh approach. Embracing the intimacy of being in somebody else’s front room is something that Later has only recently integrated, and it’s much improved for doing so even if the pandemic forced their hand. The show is more compelling than it has been for years, and something is comforting about its continued presence. Although in a perfect world, it wouldn’t be the only music show on British television, that void has been filled by intuitive online content, and Later is something that musos should cherish.

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