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#GiveLittleMixABreak proves people’s naivety to the harsh world of touring

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The relationship between some of the biggest acts in all of pop music and live touring has been… well… contentious lately, to say the least.

Back in September, Lady Gaga delayed her impending, long-anticipated world tour due to – in promoter Live Nation’s words – “severe physical pain that has impacted her ability to perform.” A month later, Birmingham’s legions of Emeli Sandé fans complained en masse of being “ripped off” after the star’s show at Genting Arena (to which tickets cost circa £45-55 per head), during which she played a meagre 55 minutes – less than two-thirds the length of an average headliner – before ending her concert prematurely. Sandé apparently disappeared off the stage without so much as an apology, although this was later, once again, blamed on vocal troubles. Then, far more recently, Shakira entered headlines for similar reasons, cancelling the first five dates of her El Dorado run of shows due to vocal worries: “the singer’s vocal chords are still recovering” from an unspecified ailment, said Live Nation.

But the zenith of pop’s biggest and brightest suffering under the microscope of a live concert in recent weeks came when the X Factor-spawned pop four-piece Little Mix went on-stage at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena. Co-singer Jade Thirlwall sent out a message on Instagram pre-show stating that she was having vocal difficulties, which was supposedly clearly apparent when the curtains were lifted to start the quartet’s performance that evening. While Little Mix, unlike the names listed above, did soldier through an entire concert, Thirlwall’s state led to the Twitter hashtag “#GiveLittleMixABreak”, with which fans directly criticised Little Mix’s management and label for overworking the pop princesses.

And, as a die-hard fan of rock n’ roll and heavy metal music, I’m unabashed in stating that this totally baffles me.

Firstly, to frame my upcoming arguments I should point out to those not in the know that the ways in which pop acts and rock bands rise to success is almost entirely different. In 2011, Little Mix got the fast-track to fame and fortune via Simon Cowell’s seemingly infinite music empire, performing one song a week for ten weeks of live shows to win The X Factor UK’s eighth season. In comparison, let’s look at the rock/punk band Creeper, who have begun climbing the ladder of success and turning heads after their debut album, Eternity, in Your Arms, hit shelves earlier this year.

Creeper have nowhere near the fan-base of a mainstream media titan like Little Mix, that pretty much goes without saying, but the band have recently began to make waves, selling out high-profile shows and gaining some promising commercial and critical success off of their first album. Many observers would agree that Creeper, however, have risen to their popularity “the old-fashioned way” – i.e., starting out small with tiny local gigs and support slots, selling merch and EP’s at said gigs and then gradually building up a buzz via word of mouth as a result, which proceeds to grow exponentially. This in turn, if they’re lucky, leads to the group getting signed to a record deal after years of unyielding hard work, with an album then letting them reach an even bigger audience, and so on and so on. It’s the same formula that saw the likes of Iron Maiden and Metallica get noticed in the early 1980s, albeit with social media added in as a catalyst.

And therein lies the issue: for rock n’ roll, and many other niches genres from reggae to punk to jazz, touring is how an act gets its name out there. In a saturated market where every single musician has a Facebook and Bandcamp page, killing it on the stage is a rock band’s lifeblood, their only real way to stand out from a crowd. The only way a band in that genre is going to rise up from their mother’s garage to the O2 Arena is trial by fire. There isn’t an X Factor for rock because the market is simply not big enough.

In turn, a rock band’s dedication to the art of the live tour – even when they’ve “made it” – is undying and brings with it some of the most courageous achievements I have ever had the pleasure to witness as a music fan.

For example, in February 2015, Iron Maiden’s lead singer Bruce Dickinson revealed that he was just coming out of a battle with tongue cancer, before being given the final all-clear in May. A year later, I saw Bruce and his band headlining the main stage of Download Festival 2016, playing an uninterrupted, full-length set that demands some of the most operatic vocals deliveries in rock, and it remains one of the best festival sets I have ever witnessed.

Furthermore, Bruce was 58 at the time.

This is also the band who, in 1984 and ‘85, would be far, far more deserving of any “break” from gigs than Little Mix: while the latter’s current run will see the group ultimately lay out 75 shows on two continents over the course of six months, Maiden’s record-smashing ‘World Slavery’ tour saw the metal giants play 189 concerts, on five continents, in less than eleven months. The ‘World Slavery’ run also started less than eight weeks after Iron Maiden had finished recording their Powerslave (1984) disc. Meanwhile, between their most recent album and the tour to promote it, Little Mix had at least six months off.

However, this is a pretty extreme example, as the ‘World Slavery’ tour is often heralded as one of the biggest live landmarks in the history of music. To make things more even and contemporary, in 2015, I saw the young American rock band Halestorm perform in my hometown of Southampton. It was apparent from the get-go that the band’s sole frontwoman Lzzy Hale had lost her voice and was running on fumes, but the main difference here is that fans knew that, unfortunately, vocal issues are a part of the course in live music and didn’t take to Twitter in huge numbers to vilify Halestorm’s record label because a singer got a throat infection. They wanted the tour to continue so that thousands of fans after us could enjoy the same evening of cathartic rock n’ roll that we did. Lzzy Hale herself shared this outlook, taking the mic mid-performance to say that she was adamant not to cancel a single show of their tour.

The simple fact is that, for every touring singer you’re a fan of regardless of genre, I can pretty much guarantee that they have had or will have problems with their voice out on the road. Between illnesses or even technique-induced mistakes, it’s an inevitability. And the solution to that is not to storm onto social media and demand that their group stops all of their planned activities, potentially robbing fans of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Throat infections are not permanent. Jade Thirlwall will get better. Within weeks, I can guarantee she will return to her giant house with more rooms than she knows what to do with and enjoy several months away from the grind of touring, all while you boycott the record label that gave it to her for allegedly causing her an unacceptably harsh working life.

So, perhaps, instead of voicing your concerns for the pop superstar who, admittedly, is a proven professional while out on the road, you should spare a thought for the underground acts who make all the same touring sacrifices as Little Mix and have been on the road regularly for years, desperate for a mere modicum of their fame, but still have crummy, nine-to-five jobs to return to come Monday morning?

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