BBarely ten years ago, Italian radio stations were time machines. Tune in and you’ll be treated to classic tunes from greats of the past such as Renato Carosone and Jimmy Fontana, or perhaps a sweet pop ballad from Tiziano Ferro. Today, the country’s musical landscape couldn’t be more different.
It started with Eurovision. In 2019, Italian delegate Mahmood narrowly missed out on first place (much to the chagrin of his fans). He captivated audiences with his original song “Soldi,” which blended hip-hop beats with nods to his Egyptian heritage. It was a superb response to far-right opponents who had questioned the 26-year-old’s surprise win at Sanremo – the Italian competition that decides this year’s Eurovision contestant. Despite protests from figures such as former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, Mahmood excelled on the world stage, while “Soldi” topped the charts in four countries.
Two years later, it was Maneskin’s turn. Outrageous and flamboyant, the rock band exerted a volcanic stage presence that sent tremors around the world long before rehearsals began. Their song “Zitti e Buoni” was a guitar and lead piece that made them Eurovision champions last May. Less than a year later, Variety credits them with the revival of rock’n’roll in the United States.
Maneskin and Mahmood are just two examples of how the break with tradition has done Italy good. “The Italian music scene has changed tremendously over the past five years,” Nur Al Habash, music journalist and founder of Italia Music Export, tells me. “Our charts were dominated by established pop legends such as Laura Pausini or Tiziano Ferro – artists who started their careers in the 90s or even earlier – and successfully bucked market trends for almost 20 years. And then, in a few months, they were all overtaken by a new generation of rap and trap artists.The Italian musical landscape is now dominated by these artists – Sfera Ebbasta, Ghali, Capo Plaza, Rondodasosa, Madame, Anna – who attract attention in the UK, US and the rest of Europe.” If you’re a rock fan looking for the next Maneskin, I’m sorry to say that these guys are a bit unique in our music scene,” says Al Habash.
The genre that flourishes the most in Italy is undoubtedly rap. Al Habash cites a “massive amount” of up-and-coming artists influenced by drill and trap emerging from all corners of Italy, often incorporating their music with regional influences. “Another good news is that, finally, a new generation of young female artists is taking the stage,” says Al Habash, a member of shesaid.so, a community of women and sexual minorities working in the music industry. “In a few years, I think we’ll have a long list of impressive female hitmakers.”
As of 2021, Italy now ranks among the top 10 countries with the largest share of music in the world, facing heavyweights such as the United States, Japan, Canada and France. Al Habash attributes this increase to a younger audience that has become the majority in the market: “People who listen to music, buy records and attend concerts are now mainly under 30 years old.” Meanwhile, artists who once would have been confined to the underground circuit are being snapped up by the majors.
“After years of dominance by talent shows providing mainstream audiences with new artists, there has been a shift of (former) indie/rock artists entering the world of pop music and television,” says Anna Zò , operational director of Linecheck Music Meeting and Festival. In Milan. “People with a grounding and an independent spirit finally realized that it might take mainstream exposure to reach enough people to make a decent living out of it.”
She says the switch to streaming has helped solve what was once a huge piracy problem in Italy, and the success is also due to some of the bigger organizations realizing that larger grassroots teams often play a role in the success of an artist. “They provide these teams – managers, agents, small labels – with the money they need to make things happen, instead of signing artists or splitting teams,” she says. “There are also a lot of new small and medium festivals after the more established ones [with] an independent approach to live music.
Topping the list are festivals such as Ypsigrock, which takes place in the picturesque medieval town of Castelbuono, Sicily. Its organizers have made a habit of never booking the same number twice, and to date have hosted foreign acts including The National, Fat White Family, Bipolar Sunshine, Fontaines DC and Let’s Eat Grandma. But what he prides himself on is promoting local talent with international appeal. “It’s unusual to experience a festival with established artists, like The National or this year The Flaming Lips, alongside new artists in a small but characterful setting like ours,” says Ypsigrock organizer Vincenzo Barreca. In recent years, the festival has seen a younger demographic participate, as well as curious international music fans. “Festivals like ours, which have a positive impact [global] the reputation of creator of taste is decisive [in introducing local] talent to international artists, the media, industry and of course the public… Italian artists are therefore embedded in a natural international context,” says Barreca colleague Gianfranco Raimondo.
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Now, in 2022, Italy faces fierce competition with not one but two Italian acts. The duo Mahmood and Blanco represent the country with their poignant ballad “Brividi” (“Chills”), while Italian artist Achille Lauro is this year’s entry for San Marino. Already well established in his home country, Lauro demonstrated a change from his usual pop-rock sound. Entitled “Stripper”, it focuses on the singer’s breathless rock voice, his blowing riffs and an over the top chorus that pays homage to the headbands of the 80s.
Unlike the UK, which frequently sends complete strangers as representatives, Italy knows what drives Eurovision audiences. Its competitors tend to be pros when it comes to live performance and the recording studio – not to mention they already have an army of adoring fans ready to cheer them on. Clearly there is something in the San Pellegrino.