Life without Buildings
TikTok, Beabadoobee, and Frank Ocean: How the evolution of modern music culture took an obscure Glasgow band to the top of the Spotify charts
Glasgow. February 2001. I am 18 years-old. Alan Thompson’s goal for Celtic in the derby stops Rangers’ title challenge in its tracks. Atomic Kitten reign supreme at the summit of the top 40, Toploader are climbing the charts with mega-hit ‘Dancing in the moonlight’ and Nu-Metal is flying off the racks in the Buchanan Street Virgin Megastore. Meanwhile in Blantyre, Glasgow band Life Without Buildings, a krauty post-rock band fronted by painter/sometimes-spoken-word poet Sue Tompkins, quietly release their debut album, Any Other City.
In 2001, music discovery wasn’t a playlist, a TikTok challenge, or an algorithm. Instead, Steve Lamacq’s evening session, crate-digging for second-hand Belle & Sebastian CDs, listening intently to local bands, and hanging about in internet forums, was my ‘Discover Weekly’. One such recommendation in one such forum was a band called Life Without Buildings, the aforementioned band who no-one had heard of were playing at the 13th Note Cafe. I couldn’t make the gig.
Fast-forward twenty years. The access over ownership model of music consumption has long since removed the hunt for sold-out or second-hand CDs. Digital services such as Spotify and Apple Music have spawned a generation of consumers who are spoilt for choice: Chillwave, Fluxwork, Chamber Psyche, Slow Core? Never heard of it. Yet apparently I listened to 162 minutes of Fluxwork in 2020.
If you’re anything like me, you will have been astonished to discover the genres of music you are a fan of — apparently listening to hundreds of hours of hundreds of genres per year. Even more surprising is the discovery there are so many genres to begin with. As it turns out, Fluxwork is one of 5071 genre distinctions within Spotify, used to algorithmically categorise music on the platform, from happy hardcore to Polish reggae (for those curious, all of which can be found on a website called Every Noise At Once).
As a die hard indie fan, how would the 18 year old me feel about my musical promiscuity? Boxing yourself into a genre in 2001 had a purpose… but with access to everything through the digital transition, there’s no risk to experiment and explore. So to describe Life without Buildings in 2001 as Glasgow Indie is fine; but in 2021, it has little meaning. Independence in the modern music era has long since shed its skin of any values with its past culture of protest; a means of recording and releasing music which had nothing to do with the major labels.
TikTok culture and GenZ-ers defines this movement of genre agnostic musical free-thinking, and with the TikTok community’s ability to cross-pollinate viral cultural moments with sales: music consumption has been revolutionised once more.
Back to Life Without Buildings. In 2001, the debut album release had been disappointing at best. As Life Without Buildings’ Guitarist Robert Johnston points out:
“The album got mostly negative reviews at the time, but we had by then had a little bit of radio play for the leanover/new town single — so I guess there was some sense of expectation? We were received well in certain places — London was always really good, and we got fairly big in Australia, but mostly over here we felt pretty obscure.”
The band broke-up soon after in 2002. Johnston stated (in a 2009 interview) that the band broke up because Tompkins wanted to focus on her career as a visual artist. Stressing that the band never envisioned turning music into a career, and had felt pressure that what started “for a laugh” had become serious. Expected or not, the band’s reputation blossomed and in 2014 a long out-of-print Any Other City received the reissue that is so richly deserved. I picked up the reissue at Monorail Music’s Record Store Day in 2014 and the album got a 8.7 best new music rating on Pitchfork. It seemed a fitting footnote to the story. Or was it?
On 23 December 2020, Gen Z superstar Beabadoobee posted a 15 second clip on TikTok mining the opening line to Life Without Buildings The Leanover “If I lose ya If I lose ya If I lose ya Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, mmm”. opening the floodgates to her legion of fans to do just the same. Beabadoobee wasn’t the only Popstar to laud the Glasgow band, Out of nowhere two years before, The Leanover appeared on Frank Ocean’s Beats One Radio show. It was played as part of three midterm specials of Blonded Radio, aired throughout the day, in collation with the Midterm elections that were held in America at the time. The shows were of particular significance — they included various political discourse including a discussion about Ocean being an openly queer black man in contemporary rap music.
By the 4th January the track entered the Spotify UK Viral Chart, where it would stay in the Top 50 until 29th January, rubbing shoulders with Lewis Capaldi, Arlo Parks, and Sea Shanties. In that period, the track was generating between 50,000–100,000 streams a day and also enjoyed seven days on the Spotify branded playlist Lorem. We estimate that that the band will have comfortably grossed in excess of £6000 as a result of the TikTok moment by the time the trend drops off.
This leaves me asking myself what would have become of Life Without Buildings in today’s musical landscape. Were they simply ‘ahead of their time’? We leave the final word to Life without Buildings’ guitarist, Robert Johnston:
“We might have flourished! I think we’d be releasing stuff on bandcamp, keeping it DIY. we might even have lasted a bit longer without the pressures of how the industry was at the time.”