Morrissey plays with Iggy!
Morrissey plays with Iggy!

Is Morrissey at the Manchester Arena the biggest gig by an unsigned artist EVER?

Smiths event in Manchester on Thursday

Is Morrissey at the Manchester Arena the biggest gig by an unsigned artist EVER?

On Easter Sunday, Morrissey announced (LTW) a July 28th concert at the Manchester Arena. This in itself isn’t wholly suprising, he’s sold the same venue out before in 2004 (for the ‘Who Put the M In Manchester?’ DVD). What is supising is that Morrissey is to play the Manchester Arena as an artist without a record deal. Since 2009’s ‘Years of Refusal’ – an album which charted in the top 5 and spawned a top 30 single – Morrissey has been an unsigned artist. Indeed, Morrissey at the Manchester Arena may well be the biggest gig by an unsigned artist in musical history. Last year he became the only unsigned artist to ever play on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, second on the bill no less.

Despite being unsigned, Morrissey’s popularity is no less than it has been at any point. In many ways, his work with the Smiths is now more popular than at the time – their best of ‘The Sound of the Smiths’ was the 15th most listened to album on Spotify in 2010 – and EMI have been reissueing Morrissey’s back catalogue like there’s no tomorrow. Being on an independent label can be tough in terms of playing with the big boys, as Moz knows from his Rough Trade days, but to be on before U2 at Glastonbury and playing arenas without any record label whatsoever is unheard of. Ever the ambitious outsider, has Morrissey unwittingly set a revolutionary precedent in the music industry? The 1990’s showed that major record labels didn’t matter, will this decade show that record labels full stop don’t matter?

There has been much obsession over the last few years on the neccessity of record labels in the aftermath of the digital revolution. Morrissey has made it clear that he has very little interest in the digital revolution and that putting an album out in a Radiohead style is not something he wishes to do. After 1997’s ‘Maladjusted’ Morrissey spent a few years without a record deal but these were very much transitional years that he needed to ready 2004’s masterpiece ‘You are the Quarry’; today Morrissey is making it clear that whilst there may be no label backing for an album ‘ready and fluttering wildly against the bars’ he is going to carry on regardless, playing the kind of big venues he always has done. Whilst he may profess that his ‘talents do not lie in DIY’, in the abscence of a major record label or official management representation (Announcement) he’s doing a pretty good job of it. Every date on his 2011 UK tour was a sell-out, and he’s recently been playing big venues and festivals in South America, a tour he’s described as the best of his life.

The big question is, will this motivation to not let the major record labels grind him down carry on to a new record? Three new songs were performed in session for Radio 2 last year and further new tracks have peppered his set lists ever since, from the sweeping ‘Action is My Middle Name’ and Morrecone-esque ‘Scandinavia’ to the punk stomp of ‘Art-Hounds’. Indeed, after the impending high court case between Morrissey and the NME this summer is cleared up and Morrissey has played the Manchester date, will worrying about major label be something Morrissey even needs to do?

Perhaps the punk ethos that infuated Morrissey in his youth, and Shelagh Delaney’s ‘perfect example of how to get up and get out and do it’ (Morrisey’s comment) is motivating the veteran singer now more than ever. Either way, an unsigned artist playing arenas is strange territory for pop music and asks long overdue questions about the importance of the record industry in the music industry.

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  1. When I interviewed Leeds band I Like Trains for this site at the start of 2011, they were “unsigned”, and part way through a successful European tour in support of their second album (which they had made themselves via the Pledge Music site where fans pay upfront for albums). The album had done relatively well, and the band were delighted – as I write they have just completed their third album whereby they cut out even the Pledge middleman and arranged a direct upfront payment scheme. However, said second (and now third) albums had been preceded by a debut on Beggars Banquet, with all the promotion that accrued, and before that a mini-album on Fierce Panda who are/were a known and very successful launchpad (Coldplay, Ash, Placebo, Keane and many more household names cut their earliest tracks for the label) with very good connections in terms of getting new bands exposure at industry events.

    We talked about whether self-funding was a possible way forward, and being nice down-to-earth chaps they were under absolutely no illusions: “It is different for bands starting out who won\’t have fostered the same fan base… we need to wait for someone to build a sustainable career from scratch before we declare it the future of the music industry. At the moment it is a potentially viable alternative to the conventional record deal.” Morrissey is simply in the same boat, at a higher level. A former Top 40 pop star with a 30 year career, much of it backed by the traditional music industry infrastructure. See also Radiohead and their “we don’t need no stinkin’ record labels” schtick when they’ve had umpteen albums’ worth of backing and support off them.

    None of these artists are unsigned, they’re simply out-of-contract, either through choice or circumstance. With more and more bands these days putting out their own albums, personally I’ll be holding fire on the reclamation of music until someone headlines the Arena (or better still a non-shit venue of that size) without ever having had a label contract.


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