A Sad Day For Music

BBC 6 Music is the only music-focused radio station that I listen to regularly. I need to put that front and centre before explaining my views about its proposed closure, because everyone commenting on the news – whether rival media organisations, politicians or listeners – has their own vested interest in the outcome and I’m no different.

I have the station on in the office all day, every day, getting to listen to everything: music from the likes of Animal Collective, Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, Gorillaz and Massive Attack, through to the most obscure electro, soul, funk and dance, and pretty much everything in between. As well as the stuff on record, there are superb live performances from big bands and up-and-comers alike, and tying everything together are presenters as friendly and energetic as Lauren Laverne, as knowledgeable as Steve Lamacq, as funny as Adam and Joe, and as musically respected as Jarvis Cocker and Guy Garvey. Just that information should be enough to convince the discerning music lover that 6 Music is worth saving in quality terms alone. But what about the argument that the BBC needs to be “distinctive”, and 6 Music doesn’t meet that criteria?

Put simply, there is no direct commercial rival to the station. It’s been a number of years since XFM has qualified, and listening to something as cynical and commercially focused as Heart FM would make the average 6 Music listener want to kill himself. Radio 1 is a pale shadow, in music terms, of its former self, and is skewed way too young. Radio 2 is skewed too old, and has been ordered to stay that way. So what’s the alternative?

The money issue, then. 6 Music costs millions to run, and the BBC needs to make cuts in order to afford (air quotes) “more quality programming”. Let’s leave aside the fact that it’s more than arguable 6 Music provides such programming in spades already, and should therefore be part of this new strategy. What about other parts of the BBC? Is anyone seriously trying to say that BBC Three’s average nightly line-up is in any way a barometer of quality? Save for occasional gems such as Being Human and Gavin & Stacey, it’s an embarrassing wasteland of horribly low-brow (more air quotes!) “entertainment” fare. And going back to the distinctiveness argument for a second, it’s programming that could easily be made by any number of digital channels – ITV 2, for instance, or E4. Yet BBC Three isn’t in danger of the axe, despite arguably not meeting either the distinctiveness or quality standards that the BBC seeks to provide. So why the difference?

And what about other BBC digital stations that are surviving, such as 1Xtra? Is its remit of “black music” (the Beeb’s words, not mine) not already at least partially represented by the increasingly R’n’B and hip-hop packed Radio 1? In my opinion, yes. And if the argument is made that Radio 1’s playlists in those genres are too commercial and not good enough for devoted fans of those forms of music, why not? Couldn’t the quality be improved, and then 1Xtra axed instead? Again, why has 6 Music been made a special case?

I wonder what 6 Music listeners are going to be left with once the dust has settled at the end of 2011. Is Radio 1 going to become un-shit overnight, return to the glory days circa early Mark & Lard, and regain at least a semi-listenable playlist? Is it going to give someone like Guy Garvey proper airtime to play his favourite tunes? Is it going to promote the same standard of new artists as 6 Music does? Extremely unlikely. So what is going to fill the gap?

The accusation doing the rounds today is that BBC director general Mark Thompson is simply pandering to politicians and rival media organisations by using 6 Music as some sort of sacrificial lamb to assuage concerns about the size of the corporation. But he’s playing a silly game. Yes, 6 Music is an easy target – it’s tucked away in the digital listings, and only listened to by a few hundred thousand people. But it means something. It’s a rare thing in today’s radio landscape – a station for music lovers, rather than just lovers of presenters talking. And the job of those presenters isn’t to suffer from verbal diarrhoea while occasionally having to break off to play some music as a contractual obligation from time to time (usually the same tunes over and over and over again) – the music itself is integral to the experience.

I’m the archetypal 6 Music listener. Music is a massive part of my life. I don’t want the station to go, and I think it would be a dreadful mistake to axe it. And if you’re not convinced by my arguments, then maybe the likes of David Bowie, La Roux, Lily Allen, Jarvis Cocker, and all the other music stars who will be lining up over the next days, weeks and months to lend their support to the campaign to save the station will convince you. Alternatively, you can listen to the views of Charlie Higson, of Edgar Wright, of the rest of the celebrity media Twitterati currently venting their outrage and sheer bemusement at this terrible decision.

Better yet, why not tune into 6 Music yourself tomorrow, and listen to what everyone may soon be missing. It’s not too late. Together we can make the BBC see sense, and prove that music still matters.

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