Hold on to your hats people, because a new series of Later … With Jools Holland is under way. In the opening episode, which aired on Saturday, Jools welcomed Damon Albarn and Emeli Sandé. They chatted about upcoming projects and had a poke around in the BBC archives. It was cosy, predictable and rather dull. Jools Holland is an amiable chap who, over decades of service, has proved beyond doubt that he loves music with a passion. But can it really be a good thing that a 63-year-old is music’s TV gatekeeper and – at present – our only option?
There are a number of well-rehearsed justifications for there being so little popular music on TV now. For a start, what is popular music in 2021? Isn’t it splintered and atomised into such a bewildering variety of microgenres that doing justice to all of it would be impossible? And, as for TV, hasn’t it been replaced by streaming anyway? Haven’t the under-30s long since given up on linear, broadcast television?
But actually, there’s a hint of self-fulfilling prophecy about all of these suggestions. Of course there will be no centralised consensus about something if it has no central space to display itself. In other words, if there isn’t a music show on television, music will find its own avenues. Of course there’s a sprawling, overwhelming profusion of access to music now. But isn’t that in itself a reason for curation? Doesn’t that suggest something beyond algorithms might be welcome?
As for the idea that young people have given up on television, well, if that’s the case, someone should probably tell the BBC, which announced earlier in the year that its youth outreach wing, BBC Three, was to return to broadcast television. The rationale for Ofcom approving this decision was interesting. It stated it would benefit certain demographics and regions who don’t currently use streaming services such as iPlayer, citing viewers from “lower income households and those living outside London and the south-east”.
But what does this have to do with music? Actually, plenty. Post-lockdown, prices for live music experiences have spiralled, as promoters understandably attempt to make up for lost revenue and exploit overwhelming demand. For a festival ticket, you now won’t get much change out of £250. These prices inevitably favour wealthier, older people. As with many things in 21st-century Britain, there’s a sense that to be young and skint is to draw the shortest of straws. This is surely exactly the kind of gap that a good public service broadcaster might look to fill. The BBC covers Glastonbury excellently, which is just as well because getting a ticket often feels like a pipe dream. There were 37.5m online requests to watch the last full festival in 2019 on platforms such as YouTube and iPlayer. People like watching music on television. And, with a degree of post-Covid nervousness still surrounding attending gigs in person, they may do even more now.
Making a brilliant music show shouldn’t be that hard – or that expensive. In recent times, Channel 4’s Four to the Floor was a brilliantly impressionistic and unpredictable mixture of video, animation and interactivity. Going further back, a touch of chaos combined with a well-informed guiding hand usually did the trick: in the 00s, Sky Arts’ From the Basement provided viewers with a steady stream of good bands, albeit in a slightly airless studio environment. Back in the 80s, Snub TV offered a berserk, specialised vision and took genuine risks (Butthole Surfers on BBC Two at suppertime anyone?), while in the 90s The White Room simply stuck bands in front of distinctly lively audiences and stood well back. Music on TV needn’t be overthought, nor should it be weighed down by presentational gimmickry. The music should be enough.
Much music on TV currently feels like a museum piece. BBC Four’s ancient Top of the Pops screenings might just be placeholders, marking time on a dying channel. But they’re also a bittersweet reminder of an era when the charts mattered. Those repeats hold a lesson for the BBC. Even in a post-chart era, they’re part of a priceless archive – the old TOTP shows come from a time when the Beeb recorded and documented the cultural life of the nation and, as it turned out, preserved it for posterity. And yes, of course Later … With Jools Holland could be said to perform a similar role now. But it feels narrow – constrained and grownup, and not always in a good way. If BBC Three wants to make its return to broadcast TV stick, it should clear an hour a week in its schedules, chuck some musicians in a room with a stage, and film the results. Who knows; maybe they’ll capture the archive of the future?