British singer Kate Bush has had a singular, if not unique, musical career. Her first album came out in 1978, and her most recent album was released last year to excellent reviews. Her career has spanned radical transformations in technology, in the record industry, and in how artists interact with the public. But, as a long-time fan, I’m curious whether the reaction to her participation in the London Olympics closing ceremony marks the point where she might finally have to change her business model.
Some background: Kate has only undertaken one major live tour, in the UK for one month in 1979. If anything, it was more of a theatrical production than a concert, and Kate was in charge of everything – choreography, musical arrangements, costumes, and staging. (An interesting side note to that tour is that she had to figure out how to sing into a microphone while dancing – and, using a coathanger and a lapel microphone, she built the first headset microphone that was ever used in a concert tour.) She has made a few one-off appearances on stage since then, but the tour was the last time she has performed an entire set of her own songs in public. What has discouraged her from touring since then, she has said, is the amount of work that she would have to put in to make the shows meet her own high standards. The last time she performed in public was a surprise appearance in 2002 with her mentor David Gilmour – and despite a very slow work pace (including a 12-year gap between record releases), Kate has a devoted and passionate fan base.
Earlier this week, the online leak of a new remix of her last big hit,1985’s Running up That Hill, raised hopes that Kate would be at the London Olympics closing ceremony. It was almost too much to hope that she would perform one of her own songs in public for the first time in over 30 years. Personally, I wasn’t sure if she would actually show up, after some of the UK press attacked her for her reclusiveness and her weight after she accepted an award at an event earlier this year. But, given her work habits, she wouldn’t do a remix for no reason at all – and, after all, it was the Olympics, and a chance to share her work with a huge worldwide audience.
I was on the couch in front of the TV the instant the ceremony started, and I didn’t take my eyes off the screen for a nano-second. And when the first few notes of Running Up that Hill floated out, I think I stopped breathing. But, despite some very creative dancing and stage action while the song played, there was no Kate. I liked the remix – the new vocal brings a different, more mature attitude to the song – but, yes, I was disappointed that she didn’t appear.
However, my disappointment was nothing compared to the vitriol circulating online after the ceremony concluded. Some fans welcomed the new track and were glad it was part of such a big event – and if, after 30 years of rarely performing, Kate didn’t want to get up on stage in front of a couple of billion people, that was fine with them. It was her choice and they still loved her. However, there were many more comments – some from very devoted long-time followers – to the effect of feeling ripped off by her not showing up, after being teased all week that she might appear. And, to add insult to injury, the new version of Running Up that Hill is only available for purchase on iTunes as part of the entire closing ceremonies album, not as an individual track. Being forced to pay for dreck like Russell Brand singing I Am The Walrus just to get the new Kate track was not well-received.
After the show, this brief statement appeared on Kate’s website. It seems rather oblivious to the reaction to her non-appearance and to the availability of her new song. Of course, she doesn’t owe anyone an explanation for anything. And it could be that she wasn’t the final decision-maker in the choice of live performers at the ceremony – although I would be very surprised if the ceremony organizers would say ‘no’ if she were willing to appear – or the choice of which tracks on the ceremony’s album would be available in which format. But I am struck by the vehemence of the criticism, especially from fans who are usually very protective and quick to defend her.
Kate has managed to sustain a commercially viable career for 30+ years while challenging almost every norm of what artists “have” to do. Apart from a very brief period at the start of her career, she has always managed herself and controlled all her business dealings. She owns the rights to all her music. She conceptualizes all her videos, and directs nearly all of them. She built and owns her own recording studio, and she works on what she wants to work on. She puts out records when she feels like it, not when a record company tells her to – and she has even more control over her schedule now, by owning her own record label. But none of that is possible, or can continue to be possible, without an audience – and an audience isn’t built or sustained by alienating longtime fans and passing up a major opportunity to create new ones.
Obviously, being a Kate fan requires patience, and accepting her way of doing things. But, with the reaction to the Olympics closing ceremony, has Kate finally tried the supportiveness of her fans one too many times? Is there a point at which even the most fiercely individual artist has to think about maintaining or growing an audience? Can an artist continue on an unconventional slow-paced career path, in a world of high-speed mass communication and demands for instantaneously available content? It will be intriguing to see what effect, if any, the fallout from Kate and the Olympics has on her way of doing business.