Plans for a second season of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s TV series, Vinyl, have been scrapped by American broadcaster, HBO due to poor viewing audiences. To those who had watched season one, this was anything but surprising. Despite the show’s clear pedigree – nobody could deny the creative credentials and insider knowledge of its producers – and the enormous financial investment, HBO clearly neglected to identify and understand its core market.
The story is based on the heady days of the drug-fuelled rock culture of America’s 1970s record industry. The plot revolves around the exploits of the central character, record label president Richie Finestra, who through a moral maze of soul searching, engages with any and all tactics, legal and illegal, moral and immoral, financially sound and unsound, to save his company without destroying his friends and colleagues along the way. The tragedies that ensue are the cornerstone of each episode’s storyline.
Those who may have lived through that era, who are now in their 50s and 60s, mostly reference the past through a nostalgic and rose-tinted view, which included hippy ethics and a move towards peace and love, rather than the insider’s reality of the cut, thrust, abuse and violence of the music industry. In this, HBO appears to have misunderstood the 50-plus demographic – which could have been a key audience for this sort of nostalgia-based entertainment. And ratings show a steady decline in viewers under 50.
There have been other attempts to dramatise the violence and drug culture of the music business. Owen Harrison’s 2015 adaptation of Kill Your Friends, an exposé of the British pop scene from a business prospective, was well written and directed but also lacked public appeal and did not realise its expectations, even with a theatrical release. The film includes violent elements along with the obligatory sex and drugs that Hollywood naively expects will draw in audiences.
Perhaps we are now bored with the overexposure of these elements of entertainment and have become ambivalent to the shock tactics used within the genre – as is evidenced in the fantasy television series Game of Thrones where excessive sex and violence including rape and bloody decapitation scenes are the norm. However, what Game of Thrones has that Vinyl does not is the hero/heroine vs villain dynamic. Vinyl doesn’t provide this – we only seem to get the villains. Maybe the music itself has to stand for the hero of the story – certainly Finestra does not have enough audience empathy factor to fulfil the role.
But what is more relevant is the association and reverence we hold for the music of our youth. Most of us learned the lessons of life and love accompanied by music of our era and hold it in much regard. This music is the bedrock of our lives and, to shatter the illusions of our own life is to attack the fundamental cultural associations of our development. Of course, those fans of the Rolling Stones know of the history, misdemeanours and wild antics of the group, but it is their music that provides the soundtrack to their fan’s youth and not Mick Jagger’s love life or Keith Richards’ exploits with narcotics.
We love our heroes, our rock and pop stars – but mostly, we love our music. This is best illustrated by the often proprietary language we use when referring to music. You can hear music referred to as substantive part of cultural ownership as in: “She always takes her music with her” or, “He enjoys his music.” This demonstrates the bond that we have with music and the attachment or ownership that we impose on it. We don’t want to denigrate the value of music through depictions of murder, sex, drugs and greed.
The commodification of music is necessary for its survival as an industry, but the true value for us is cultural and not its associations with business and the exploitation of markets. When you ask most people in the business side of the industry how they got involved you invariably get the response: “because of the music”.
So the further separation of music in Vinyl into a business context creates even greater audience alienation – and it is this that HBO has ignored. It may be of academic interest to know how the music industry changed and grew during that period and the personalities, managers, record company moguls and their excesses but this has never been of great interest to the public at large. The lengthy memoir from record company executive Clive Davis, former head of Columbia Records in the 1960s, The Soundtrack of My Life was not a bestseller for exactly that reason – its appeal was limited to those whose focus is on the business side of music, rather than the music itself.
Vinyl’ problem is that it demeans and devalues the music which it ought to celebrate as an intrinsic part of the cultural history of pop. Each generation has its music identifier and will look back to the influences that shaped that music. This programme destroys that bond and the artistic and musical values and turns them into depraved and debauched conduits for sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.
Ultimately what HBO has done here is lose the music and from a social prospective, music is representative of youth culture, not business. HBO has missed the point. It is only right that they have pulled plans for a second series.