When The Black Keys released their eighth studio album Turn Blue in May, it became their first album to reach the pinnacle of the American Billboard chart for best-selling album. As of the end of June, the album had sold 328 000 copies in the United States alone. The Black Keys were always an unlikely band to join the pantheon of indie bands who’ve crossed over to achieve a number 1 album – the last survivor of the blues revivalist, White Stripes-aping class they belonged to, they slaved away for years, bubbling under the surface, until 2010’s Danger Mouse-helmed Brothers propelled them to international prominence.
Despite their commercial success, critical interest in the band has waned considerably. While Brothers and most of their five albums before that were well-received by the music press, and El Camino was only slightly less critically acclaimed, on Turn Blue the tide seems to have turned against the band. While this can be put down to a shift away from ‘rockist’ ideals by music critics and a lack of innovation from the band, another reason could be their success itself, and the way it was achieved. Brothers sold well on release, but there was no indication that it would go on to sell the million albums that it eventually did two years later. That is, until advertisers picked up on the music. Throughout the course of 2010 and 2011, lead singles ‘Howlin’ For You’ and ‘Tighten Up’ were two of the most-played songs in advertisements across the United States. Their sound became so prominent in the selling of products that three companies have now been sued by the band for using sound-alike copies in their commercials. This effect can likely be deemed a contributing factor to The Black Keys’ ubiquity, the selling of albums, and their eventual oversaturation and rejection by some sections of the music community. This cycle isn’t found as often locally in South Africa – licensing costs are likely deemed too exorbitant to use popular overseas music, with most adverts going for the knock-off approach (although – see Goldfish’s ‘Soundtracks and Comebacks’ and SuperSport). However, and maybe as a result, a similar trend to this can be found in the FIFA games and their accompanying soundtracks.
EA’s FIFA is perhaps the most-played game in the country (mostly by males, yes, but there are many females who play it too). Being the best gaming representation of soccer in a soccer-mad country, it was always going to be. Its soundtrack is interesting to analyse in and of itself. Since the franchise switched to its next-gen model in 2007, it has featured a heady mix of genres, with its stated aim to showcase music that “spans the world”. This makes sense from a purely pragmatic viewpoint: football is the world’s most global game (there are more football playing nations than there are states recognised by the UN), and, correspondingly, EA’s FIFA is the most global sports game franchise and their most profitable sporting title. FIFA 2009 featured musical acts from 22 different countries side-by-side more established bands like Kasabian. That version of the game was perhaps most memorable for its inclusion of MGMT’s ‘Kids’, a song that would skyrocket to prominence when it was released as a single later that year and become the band’s highest-charting song. South African acts even got some love, with BLK JKS’ transcendent ‘Lakeside’ being featured in 2010 and LCNVL (the band formerly known as Locnville), appearing in the 2011 version.
The ‘world music’ slant has dissipated slightly from the soundtracks in the past few years. Out of the 37 tracks on the 2014 soundtrack, only 12 are from bands who originate outside the US and the UK, and only 5 are in languages other than English. The shift might say a lot about the dwindling global interest in music not from or of the West, but what it shows in real terms is a more simple understanding (again, pragmatism) that the slightly-left-of-centre ‘indie’ songs were the ones most revered. It was MGMT’s ‘Kids’, Digitalism’s ‘Pogo’, Two Door Cinema Club’s ‘I Can Talk’, The Naked And Famous’ ‘Punching In A Dream’. FIFA 14 is made up for the best part of songs some might describe as ‘commercial-indie’, a contradiction in terms, yes, but one that somehow makes sense in 2014. These are songs written for the enjoyment of the masses by bands supposedly striving for recognition in alternative spaces.
This doesn’t mean that the songs aren’t good. Any half-devoted fan of the game will be able to tell you that there have been some real gems on the soundtrack in the past. They’ll also likely be able to identify an inordinately large number of the songs that have appeared over the years, even if all the names of the songs and artists haven’t stuck. Such is the nature of the South African music climate.
A little bit of poking around at the surface will show you that an influential group of people might have taken some notice of this. There has been a blossoming in the last few years of foreign bands that are too small for Big Concerts to consider and too big for small party promoters to afford coming to our shores, brought down by festivals and event companies looking to occupy that in-between niche. There are, of course, a magnitude of bands that exist in this category, but a surprisingly large (read: too large to ignore) number of the bands that have come here (or are coming this year) in that category have, yes, had songs that have featured on FIFA. They include :
– Crystal Fighters (FIFA 13)
– Bloc Party (FIFA 06, FIFA 13, FIFA 14)
– Little Dragon (FIFA 12)
– St Lucia (FIFA 13)
– Two Door Cinema Club (FIFA 11, FIFA 13)
– Foals (FIFA 09, FIFA 14)
– The Kooks (FIFA 09)
– The Presets (FIFA 13)
– John Newman (FIFA 14)
– Editors (FIFA Street 2)
– The Subways (FIFA Street 2)
There could well be others that we’ve missed. Note that each iteration of FIFA comes out the year before the year it represents (FIFA 14 came out in September 2013, FIFA 13 in September 2012, etc), and you’ll see that every act mentioned above came here after their first appearance on the game.
As previously mentioned, there is a strong correlation globally between bands that have been featured on FIFA and those that have achieved some degree of success. It thus makes perfect sense that these bands would come here one way or another. When taking a risk on a foreign musical act, economics has to play a part, and many of the bands mentioned above enjoy a large following in this country (sometimes disproportionate to their global following) regardless of which game they’ve been featured on. Most of them, when they played, put on amazing live shows and gave audiences massive value for money. But there seems to be no denying the influence of the game – whether directly or indirectly, the FIFA soundtrack has had an impact on the bands that have visited South Africa. It’s obviously entirely unclear whether this is a pointed strategy by event promoters or smart picks of bands whose popularity here can now be (at least partially) explained, but one thing is for sure: if you want to know who might be coming to South Africa in 2015, just buy the corresponding version of FIFA.