Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, George Ezra: 2014, the year in music

You couldn’t have picked a worse time to become a pop star than 2014. Album sales were at an all-time low, record labels were left millions in the red with artists they thought would be superstars, and fewer new artists broke through than at any time in the past 40 years.

In these crisis times, only the Sainsbury’s Basics of pop stars could prevail: the inoffensive, vaguely credible white solo male. This year was dominated by Ed Sheeran, who sold out three nights at Wembley Stadium; Sam Smith, who sold more than a million records in the US; and George Ezra, along with Smith, the only new UK artists to go platinum in 2014. Those three men, along with boy/man bands Take That and One Direction, are likely to have the five biggest selling albums of the year. All offer basically the same product: pleasant music for mums and daughters that sounds a bit like the past without actually referencing any social or cultural signifiers. The days of Lady Gaga releasing mariachi songs in response to Arizona immigration law seem a long way away.

Go back to the start of 2014, when a range of exciting pop artists from diverse backgrounds were being tipped for big things, and you can see what a state we’re in. Ella Eyre, Banks, Sampha, Chance The Rapper, MNEK, Kelela: none of them have a meaningful dent on the charts in their own right. For some, it’s gone so badly that albums slated for release this year are still on the shelf.

It’s a situation that’s become unsustainable, so a new deal has been done. Below pop’s upper crust of boys with scruffy hair and Fearne Cotton’s phone number, a new kind of music industry has emerged, one based on patronage in which big companies pay for pop stars’ continued existence.

FKA twigs sold hardly any records, yet her year has been an undoubted success, scoring a string of magazine covers and a big Google Glass advert. Ella Eyre, although unable to score a Top 10 hit, has enjoyed huge deals with Bose and a string of fashion brands. Jungle sold a miserable number of albums, but that Amazon Fire Phone ad and being on every TV montage in the world means that they’ll end the year with the cash to make another album.

This new side of the industry appears more accommodating of adventurous music, as well as female and non-white artists, but in reality its criteria are almost as narrow as that of the record-buying public. Brands are looking for artists who are fashionable and have a strong visual presence but who crucially aren’t saying anything too political or disruptive. They need artists who reinforce a sense of Urban Outfitters trendiness, rather than do anything to challenge the culture from which they come.

What’s especially frustrating is that below this layer of sponsor-backed artists, 2014 has seen reams of new music from artists who have plenty to say. Ratking and Princess Nokia made leftfield hip-hop a force once more in New York. Sleaford Mods produced seething rants against the mundanity of British culture. And Dean Blunt became the first artist in a generation to bring a new perspective to constructions of race in the UK with his album Black Metal. Grime, meanwhile, had a blinding resurgence with single after single of high-energy swagger.

But what disappeared in 2014 was the mechanism for any of those artists to do a Dizzee Rascal or a Mike Skinner or an Arctic Monkeys and make their way to the top, or even the middle, of the charts.

Instead, music has developed its own class system: a top tier of million-selling global stars, a middle layer of tame fashion-mag favourites, and an underclass of artists who are nobly forwarding the cause of pop and doing so with little or no reward.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Sam Wolfson, for The Guardian on Saturday 20th December 2014 06.00 Europe/London

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