Reaction to Stephen Gately's death will test music industry

Fri, Oct 16, 2009, 01:00

REVOLVER:With Boyzone’s 2008 compilation album re-entering the top 100 in the midweek music sales, people are behaving the same way they always behave when a pop star dies: by buying their records. It’s a music industry tradition, writes BRIAN BOYD

In the same week that a new Michael Jackson song was unveiled, Boyzone fans have reacted to the tragic early death of Stephen Gately by sending Boyzone back into the charts.

It’s always a dilemma for the record labels when confronted with a situation like this: any rush to shove out or promote music by the person who has died reeks of a tawdry cash-in, yet there is a genuine demand among fans who want to make a gesture in the form of listening again to the music.

It was one of the more sordid aspects of Michael Jackson’s death that, within hours of the announcement, there were reports that record plants were working around the clock to press as many albums as possible in anticipation of the huge demand that would follow.

The Jackson case is unique simply because of his iconic status and the pan-generational global acknowledgment of his place in music’s firmament. The commercial reaction to Jackson’s death looks likely to eclipse reactions to the deaths of Elvis, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain.

Boyzone’s record label – Universal – is theoretically able to feed the market in whatever way its directors wish. They will have to ensure there are sufficient numbers of the band’s recordings in the shops to feed demand, but one imagines they will stop short of rushing out some special best-of package. In this, they will be conscious of their ongoing relationship with the band and hopefully respectful towards Gately’s memory.

Stephen Gately’s death represents the first time that the boyband genre has had to deal with such a tragic situation. Musically, it’s entirely different from the cases of other musicians who have died in their prime.

Boyband members don’t exist in that Mercury Music Prize/artistic legacy world. They rarely write their own songs, thus accruing less money in royalties and having to rely on their ability to perform. This is one of the reasons for the very fast turnover of talent in this genre.

While boybands, by their very nature, are not musical pioneers, their connection with their fan base is a deeply emotional one; it operates on a level well removed from the content of the actual music. The bands exist as the poster on the bedroom wall, the first swell of teen (and pre-teen) romantic engagement with a performer; there is an emotional passion there that simply doesn’t exist in other genres of music.

From The Beatles (initially packaged by Brian Epstein as a boyband), The Monkees and The Osmonds, up to New Kids On The Block and Take That, there has always been a fundamental misunderstanding of the position and function of the boyband in the musical spectrum. A lot of thought goes into them. It’s not just assembling a bunch of pretty-boys who know how to lip-synch.

The songs have to follow certain conventions: they must cover subjects such as love, relationships, breaking up and reuniting. The members of the act all need to adopt different characters – the strong, silent type, the goofy one, the heart-throb etc – but none of these characteristics should be so acutely defined that any one band member outshines the others.

An early death such as Stephen Gately’s was never part of this carefully prepared script. The four remaining members of Boyzone must now decide how to react musically to his death: they’re in uncharted waters.

They will obviously want to mark their friend’s passing but whether they do that under the Boyzone banner is their decision. It’s a difficult and delicate matter for any band to respond to a demand from fans to commemorate someone they have lost.