For Sheffield Wednesday fans, the 31st January 2006 merely confirmed what they had already known – this was to be a difficult year. The Owls had a game at home in the Championship against Luton Town, and went into the match in 20th position, a year of financial turmoil and insecurity adding bleak prospectus to what was already an intense battle for survival.
There was little reward for many of the 23,965 spectators who had made their way through the Sheffield suburb of Owlerton to Hillsborough Stadium; a more than decent effort on a cold, post-Christmas Tuesday night. Luton, who arrived in the comfortable position of 8th, killed the game off in the space of 4 second half minutes, Kevin Nicholls converting a penalty in the 52nd minute before Rowan Vine completed the scoring 4 minutes later. The bleak got bleaker.
Not all Wednesday fans were left to ruminate on the situation; there were four missing from the stands that night who might otherwise have attended. While Wednesday were able to avoid relegation that season - marking 2006 as relatively successful - for Andy Nicholson, Jamie Cook, Matt Helders and Alex Turner, that year’s success was anything but relative. Just a day before that 2-0 defeat to Luton Town, these four Owl fans had the fastest selling debut album in British history.
Thus goes the legend of the Arctic Monkeys; four young, working class, High Green lads who seemingly picked up a guitar, played their first chord, and found themselves international superstars. This is not the case, or at least not wholly the case, you see this omits one huge contributing factor to their success – the internet. The explosion of the Arctic Monkeys may have caught the industry off guard, but those in the Sheffield music scene were all too aware of the hype building around them. Playing around the various pubs and clubs of the steel city and the surrounding area, they began to build up a small, fiercely loyal and most importantly technologically connected fan base.
Arctic Monkeys gave out free CD’s of their hastily recorded demo’s at one gig and then, to their surprise, found them being sung back at them at the next. The mid 2000 boom - before almost complete bust - of Myspace meant that the Arctic Monkeys stumbled upon a rapid and directly targeted means of marketing almost entirely by accident (and years before the majority of labels). Fans of the band would post the demoed songs on their own Myspace accounts and share with their friends, collaborating together to transcribe the lyrics. Meanwhile local online music blogs would write reviews and recommendations based on seeing them live, giving them credibility from trusted sources.
It is not entirely surprising that the music industry would be late in recognising the potential of the viral market. One can only imagine the mental turmoil occurring inside a label manager’s head when discovering that giving their product away for free, while spending virtually nothing on promotion, could actually go on to make more money than the old model. One can’t help but think of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyessy being destroyed by its own logic.
If Turner and Co found themselves in the eye of the perfect storm, it wasn’t one they actively chased, "It dawned on [us] that there are no leaders in all this or no plan or scheme, other than what's unfolding”, The early version of their own website announced. It’s a statement typical of the early nonchalance that categorised the band. Their early mumbled interviews spoke of an almost genetic distaste for the public relations side of being in the band, a burning desire to just let the music speak for itself.
I began by talking about Sheffield Wednesday, not simply as a mood setter – nor to alienate any United fans who may be reading- but to show that there is a real, tangible link between the development of Arctic Monkeys as a band and football as a whole; thanks in no small part to the rise of the internet. While one of the main draws of Whatever People Say I am That’s What I’m Not (the aforementioned, record breaking debut album) is in it’s kitchen-sink style lyrical depiction of modern 20-something British life - it is also a strong rebuttal of an archaic and materialistic music industry. The song Perhaps Vampires is a bit strong but... attacks those big label figures who pretend to support the growth of a band, yet only want to leech off their success.
The internet allowed Arctic Monkeys to remain autonomous and in charge of their own development. They had already acquired a dedicated fan base (or “developed a brand”, as some suited A&R man would have informed them) by the time record companies were interested in them, allowing them to forgoe the big labels and sign with independent outfit Domino instead, giving them full creative control. Perhaps more crucially, the internet provided a platform for their fans, allowing them to feel directly involved in their success and not as targeted consumers of cynically constructed pre-packaged pop. A band for the people and by the people.
In much the same way, the ways in which we now and watch and discuss football have offered the same feeling to a disenfranchised fanship. The now global ubiquity of streams, vines, podcasts and fan run blogs, allow the modern football fan an alternative route to the sport, rather than what is forced down their throat by the likes of Sky or BT. Whereas before the only two ways to enjoy football was through wildly inflating match tickets or ever increasing subscription fees, this provides a new way of consuming the sport (and even an opportunity to stick two fingers up to the money men). Not quite pirate radio but close enough.
The growth of the internet blog provided ordinary fans direct influence. Myspace pages and music blogs of the mid 2000’s allowed fans to spread the word on the emerging scene of British indie, formed in the post-Britpop vacuum. Bands like The Libertines, Reverend and the Makers and Kasabian took the aggression and energy of American Garage bands such as The Strokes and infused it with lyrics full of the uniquely mundane, working class sensibilities that became so fascinating in the music of The Jam and The Smiths. This came as a particular relief following the popularity of boy bands and girl groups, the rise of the talent show and the never ending line of those willing to jump on the Britpop bandwagon. The fans were able to propel those who they saw as authentic, who the music industry would have perhaps otherwise ignored, into the mainstream.
In the same way, football blogs have changed the focus on the way the sport is discussed. Just take a look at the popularity online of areas of football that the average football fan would, at one time, be unable to connect with. There is an overflow of sites dedicated to in-depth tactical and statistical analysis of matches; Michael Cox’s Zonal Marking set the benchmark with close to 3 million hits a month, while Swiss Ramble, a blog dedicated to the financial side of football, has over 66 thousand followers on Twitter.
Football fans now expect a higher level of punditry. No longer is it acceptable to tune into Match of the Day and hear Mark Lawrenson tell us that pace is a good trait in a striker, or that goals win games. Tell us how having pace upfront changes a team’s approach or the opposition’s defensive gameplan. Tell us why these goals are scored.
This is not to say that the conversations the internet facilitates are always positive. As the Arctic Monkeys developed, their change to the experimental style of their 3rd album Humbug brought criticism from the very same fans who had once driven their success. Traditionalists bemoaned the switch of emphasis from lager swigging, power chord bashing and girl chasing to a more nuanced sound; complete with echoed guitars, ponderous, opaque lyrics and trippy song arrangements. The band moved to, recorded in, and were influenced by America. Indeed the term American was soon attached to them as a derogatory label - an insult synonymous in British culture with disappearing up ones own arse.
Arctic Monkeys took a trip to the Mojave Desert to record Humbug and follow up album Suck it and See with Queens of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme producing. Some fans worried that this stripped all that was British – and thus all that was good from the band. Lost was the frenzied energy of the early gigs, the boyish insecurity, replaced instead by a try hard, faux cool persona. Alex Turner - the lead singer - soon adopted permanent sunglasses, regardless of venue. A move notoriously difficult in protecting humility, and all too fraught with the danger of going full Bono.
Gone too were the lyrics that first spoke to a lost generation; full of culturally specific references leading many early non British fans rushing to Google to explain a Mardy Bum or Hunter’s Bar. Every YouTube video was soon scrutinised and compared with interviews of the past for any hint of a waver in Alex’s Yorkshire droll, as if the change in temperament would flavour the very words he spoke. To see if he had now become the very figure he used to mock in songs like Fake Tales of San Francisco (Yeah I’d like to tell you all my problem/you’re not from New York City you’re from Rotherham).
In much the same way, this new age way of viewing football was not welcomed by everyone. Many fans rejected the number driven aspect of soccer, the Moneyball monopoly of the transfer market. That was all well and good for the Yanks and their baseball, but it had no place in the emotional, passion driven, world of football. No stats please, we’re British.
Some observers worried if the change in emphasis was not stripping British football of its own unique elements. Removing the intensity, the graft, the hard tackles from the judgement of a player for cold inflexible stats such as chance conversion rate and interceptions per game. Old school managers like Harry Redknapp and Alan Curbishley were overlooked, while young upstart laptop managers like Andre Villas-Boas were given top English jobs.
A certain subtract of fans of both Arctic Monkeys and of British football found themselves sharing a sense of abandonment. That the traditional fan who made them what they were, are now being ignored for the glitz and glamour of foreign attractions.
Others saw the importance of moving forward. Without a change in style or direction, would Arctic Monkeys have fallen to the wayside like so many indie bands of their time? (whatever happened to The Pigeon Detectives or The Fratellis anyway?). Instead they have a number 1 record in America, millions in record sales, and played at the Olympic Opening Ceremony for London 2012. Likewise, many England fans point to the disappointment of the national team and wonder if this is partly due to a reluctance to revolutionise how we think about football on a fundamental level- the exact process current World Cup champions Germany undertook in 2000.
The internet is just a framework for these considerations. The platform it provides is revolutionary, but the discussion it facilitates is not. Bands have always been accused of selling out. For some fans they are like a used car, as soon as that first album leaves the lot their value immediately plummets.
Football too, has always been scared of change. Johnathon Wilson in his book Inverting the Pyramid points out how the English were appalled at the prospect of introducing a law preventing hands being used to carry the ball when drafting the first set of rules for the game. And while goaline technology is now in use in the Premier League, football as a whole still lags far behind other sports in it’s adoption and use of available technology.
Maybe the Arctic Monkeys have sold their musical soul to break America. Maybe British football has lost the elements that once made it so attractive. The internet is important in allowing us to discuss such things, but it can never give us the definitive answer. In the end, it all comes down to us and whether we hold fast to the past or whether we move forward and reject the piece of advice the Arctic Monkeys gave us in their first ever video, I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor, and allow ourselves to believe the hype.