Sam Smith And The Sound Of Reality

Can the BBC's blessing be a curse? D'uh, yeah...
Sam Smith

The BBC’s annual Sound Of list concludes tomorrow (January 10th), and it’s pretty likely, given who’s been announced already, that Sam Smith (pictured) will be 2014’s version of Haim, Michael Kiwanuka, Jessie J and Ellie Goulding. And with the winning comes great expectations – expectations that only the truly dedicated can hope to meet.

Smith will add the Sound Of accolade to some other significant achievements – he won the BRIT Critics’ Choice Award at the end of December 2013 (news), is nominated in MTV’s Brand New vote (which closes at the end of January), and enjoyed a number one single last year as the featured guest on Naughty Boy’s ‘La La La’. Not bad for a young lad from Bishop’s Stortford – the birthplace of Radio 1 DJ Greg James, no less – who won’t release his debut album until the early summer.

But just because Smith’s first out of the blocks in the race for pop dominance in 2014, his high-profile plaudits will count for nothing if he ultimately trips, falls, and fails. Pore over previous years’ Sound Of longlists and there is an abundance of casualties, acts who might’ve been but ultimately came up short of realising the potential evident at the beginning of their respective campaigns. Clash highlighted a few of these outfits – Mona, Joe Lean, Rox – when the 2014 longlist was announced. 

Smith’s team will have been aiming for these turn-of-the-year ‘prizes’ for some time. At the beginning of 2013, his management will have put the very greatest effort into sculpting a campaign to culminate in these poll victories. He’s been through his share of managers – Smith had six by the time he was 18 (he’s now 21) – each of whom will have had different ideas regarding his ideal market, his most appropriate demographic. To go Bublé or Blunt, or maybe even Bowie? Or, even, to piggyback Disclosure and Naughty Boy and use their successes to fire your own.

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Naughty Boy feat. Sam Smith, 'La La La'

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It’s a plot we’ve witnessed before: Emeli Sandé, the biggest-selling British artist (in terms of album sales) of 2013, really broke into the mainstream after duetting with Professor Green on the rapper’s ‘Read All About It’ number-one single, and Dido achieved her widest recognition in the UK after she featured on Eminem’s global hit ‘Stan’. It’s a plot proven to work, which sets Smith and fellow Sound Of top-fivers Ella Eyre (who has worked with Rudimental) and Sampha (Drake, SBTRKT) in good stead for the year to come.

But who’s most likely to fade fastest amongst this season’s Sound Of bright young things? A quick office poll suggests that George Ezra might struggle to really impact on the hearts and minds of the general public – if there’s one thing that the charts don’t need any more of, it’s young kids singing like they’ve the souls of 20-a-day troubadours washed up on the shores of the delta blues – and Luke Sital-Singh’s politeness might play against him (though the squeaky-clean likes of Olly Murs and Tom Odell have shown that smiling sweetly through the shit that’s flung at you can pay serious dividends).

Naturally, nobody here is wishing failure on any new artist – the music industry is full of sharks, of crooks, of traps desperate to misdirect the naïve into avenues leading only to dead ends, so we have to look out for each other. But there is no chance that all of the 15 acts making up the Sound Of 2014 longlist will achieve what is hoped of them. Smith has come prepared. But can the same be said of someone like FKA Twigs? Of Chance The Rapper? Of Kelela? Each of these artists is doing their own thing their own way, but once this bluster of hype has calmed down, they’ll need to convert their singular approaches to mass-appeal products – or be considered disappointments in the grand scheme of critical subjectivity. Not everyone can do a Frank Ocean and turn in a boundaries-smashing debut album that completely dissolves any doubt previously held about its maker’s ability to truly showcase his inherent talents.

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FKA Twigs, 'Water Me'

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Those who never expected to appear on This Sort Of Thing can have their modest plans for the year to come entirely shattered by the increased exposure. The Sound Of is a blessing for many, no doubt about that – but a behind-the-scenes curse for those who may now find anticipation for forthcoming material raised to levels that can never be met.

What are people really expecting Brighton’s Royal Blood to deliver in the next few months? At the time of their Sound Of longlisting, they’ve one song out there, a single video online. It’s alright, a decent thrash-around number that says: yes, these guys can rock. But just how much room for growth is there when you’re only a two-piece operating within the staid-ium rock genre? Energy will carry a band only so far – when the material goes stale, the crowds get thinner. And what if Jungle’s album isn’t the instant classic that so many early supporters are hoping for? Will it pull in 6/10s where, the context of year-start hype aside, it probably deserves more?

Esoteric artists can carve out long careers. Bowie, Walker, Bush… they’re out there, evidence that (with some luck, of course) remaining true to the spirit that drives you to make this music in the first place can result in a life of creative fulfilment and commercial rewards. Is Sam Smith likely to take a place beside such legends? Of course not. He’s a pop singer who’s made his name appearing on songs he didn’t exclusively write. He’s not, yet, mining his own soul to express himself, to any level where an informed guess can be made as to his situation 12 months from now. But we know he’ll do alright – history shows that Sound Of winners always do.

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Ellie Goulding, 'Burn'

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For a while, at least. 2009 winner Little Boots saw her second LP, 2013’s ‘Nocturnes’, pick up mostly average reviews, and it charted south of the UK top 40. Ellie Goulding’s ‘Halcyon’ album of 2012 might’ve debuted at two, but its first-week sales were 10% down on those of her 2010 debut, ‘Lights’. Persistence has paid off, though – by rarely wearing any trousers, getting wild with a razor and collaborating with Calvin Harris she’s now shifted over 600,000 copies of album number two.

But is she really happy? As her success has grown so other aspects of her life have crumbled – relationships with Greg James and Skrillex have bitten the dust, publicly – and, at times, her television performances have been painful, as if she’s being pushed to the very edge of her faculties, like she could collapse in a teary heap at any moment. But maybe that’s just me – to someone else, she’s having a ball, probably.

Goulding’s dedication, whatever the consequences, is a model for how to make the most of your Sound Of-style platform. Get writing, get recording, get releasing, get promoting, and just don’t stop, ever. No room for anything else. Does Sam Smith have the stamina? Does he have the songs?

Come and ask us again in December.

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Read Clash’s Next Wave interview with Sam Smith

Read about Clash’s tips for 2014 – our Next Wave Class Of 2014 (and also the best of the rest

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