How Arctic Monkeys’ debut single changed the music industry and ‘killed the NME’

Exactly 10 years ago, the Sheffield teenagers mined their giant online following to send I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor to No 1 and revolutionised the way music was sold in the UK for ever

In a noisy London pub, former NME editor Conor McNicholas stops mid-sentence to point out a man standing at the bar. It’s Dominic Mohan, the former Sun editor who ran the paper’s Bizarre column from 1996 to 2007. McNicholas resumes talking about two upward blips in the otherwise ever-declining curve of NME sales: punk in 1977 and – under his editorship from 2002 to 2003 – when the Strokes, the White Stripes and the Libertines reigned. “The thing that joins those two things,” he explains, “is that we owned the fucking scene.”

Not Britpop? “The problem with Britpop is that Mohan owned it as much as everyone else – Blur v Oasis was a tabloid conversation. We were the only place who knew what the Libertines meant. We owned the conversation around guitar music. That’s what changed in 2005 – we didn’t any more. Arctic Monkeys always felt to me like the band that killed the NME.”

But they didn’t do it by design. At first they didn’t do anything by design, beyond writing songs and gigging around Sheffield, distributing homemade demo CDs at shows. Their canny friends burned copies to leave on buses, but more importantly, uploaded them to filesharing sites and set up a MySpace page. By the time the press latched on in spring 2005, fans were already swapping bootlegs and gossip on Monkeys messageboards that they had started themselves in the absence of official avenues.

Having unwittingly soared online, the band disappointed clamouring major label executives when they signed with indie label Domino that June. McNicholas recalls strolling up to their Reading festival set in August, five minutes before they were due on, only to find the crowd eight-deep outside the tent. “We’d done virtually nothing, and there was this instant fanbase.”

Ten years ago, on 23 October 2005, Arctic Monkeys’ debut single I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor went straight in at No 1. Although Alex Turner was often compared to Sheffield forebear Jarvis Cocker, here he wasn’t doling out social commentary. The song is one boy’s ardent gaze on a girl whose stiff shoulders mean she probably can’t dance, but whose movements hypnotise him anyway. It’s romantic and modern, shy and brash, run through with a rich sense of pop history, with references to electro pop and girls named Rio, funk syncopation and a stark punk riff.

The band’s novel internet-spawned success was reported on the national news. They weren’t fussed, according to their then-PR manager Anton Brookes, but it was genuinely significant for the music industry, which was moving into a more stable era following the lawlessness of Napster at the turn of the century. In June 2004, iTunes had launched in the UK, and downloads went on to account for 17.9% of that year’s singles chart. (Digital sales weren’t even tracked in 2003.) By 2005, that number had more than doubled to 36.6%. Singles were regaining vitality, and Arctic Monkeys proved that giving away music for free wasn’t career suicide, but a smart move.

A decade on, I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’s legacy is one of creation, destruction and transition. It’s one of the few songs from that era that’s still a regular fixture on Arctic Monkeys’ setlists. Producer Alan Smyth recalls hearing it for the first time in July 2004, as the band recorded it during the fourth of their five sessions together at Sheffield’s 2fly Studios. “They were very excitable,” he says. “Every time they recorded, they’d just go hell for leather, faster and faster. I decided to use a click track for the beginning of the song. I said, stick to that and I’ll let you go after the second chorus. Then I’ll let you get fast. It gets more exciting because of that.”

The cover of I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.
The cover of I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor. Photograph: PR

Dancefloor was such a phenomenon that it became perceived as indie’s death knell, something that couldn’t be topped. “I couldn’t imagine a better guitar band coming out of the UK,” says Mike Smith, who signed them to EMI Publishing for a rumoured £1m (he declines to confirm the figure). Still, labels put zealous effort into finding heirs, especially once Arctic Monkeys’ first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, became the fastest-selling British debut of all time in January 2006. (Leona Lewis overtook them in 2007 and Susan Boyle in 2009.)

“It gave the impression that a return to the Britpop boom time was upon us,” says music writer Tom Ewing, who runs the blog Popular, which analyses the UK’s No 1 singles. “The industry was full of people who wanted that to be true. So you quite quickly got a huge glut of indie music – the tipping point between this quite gradual, organic build-up of indie as a chart force, and the “landfill indie” bubble of 2007/8 or so. Even in less perilous times labels would have tried to copy a success story that big. There weren’t enough bands as good as Arctic Monkeys. Hence the bubble, and it bursting.” New British indie bands are still sold on their similarity to Arctic Monkeys, whether through attempts to paint the Vaccines’ first Reading performance in similarly frenzied terms, or by the repeated reminder that Royal Blood are managed by the same team. There’s arguably been no heir yet.

Arctic Monkeys may have left the press and other bands eating dirt, but their internet-abetted rise reinvigorated the industry that their success was meant to have made redundant. “There was a degree of poison towards MySpace as the second killer of the record industry after Napster,” says music business journalist Eamonn Forde. “This was supposedly proof that bands didn’t need record companies. Arctic Monkeys proved that a good label is still really important.” It was a legitimising moment for Domino, too, which had achieved success with Franz Ferdinand a year earlier, “but there was a degree of scepticism that said maybe it was a fluke,” says Forde. “Then Arctic Monkeys came along and Domino roared into prime position.”

Arctic Monkeys at the Astoria in 2005.
Arctic Monkeys at the Astoria in 2005. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Forde describes “a disconnect between the internet as a sales-and-distribution channel and the internet as a social space. Arctic Monkeys were one of those acts, certainly at the mainstream level, that brought those two things together”. Labels quickly learned how to work the internet to their advantage. After Sandi Thom’s I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair) tanked on its original release in October 2005, she started web-streaming gigs from her basement, supposedly to millions of fans. Sceptical critics pointed out that she could never have afforded her server costs on her own, but the spin worked. The song was re-released through BMG in May 2006 and topped the charts. In November 2005, Lily Allen (signed to Regal) started posting demos on MySpace.

“Arctic Monkeys created a model that’s absolutely dominant today,” says Smith. “The fact that you’re clicking on music to listen to as you did with them – they heralded what we’ve come to live in now.”

Beyond Dancefloor’s unintentional revolution, there’s lingering resonance in its bridging of two eras. “If they’d come out 10 years earlier or 10 years later – now – none of that magic would have happened,” says Alison Howe, who booked the band for their first Later … With Jools Holland – coincidentally, the week that Dancefloor was No 1. “It felt like a moment that a generation would remember for the rest of their lives.”

• This article was amended on 23 October 2015 to amend the location referred to in the photo caption.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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