Thursday, January 20, 2011

Looking Good For A Corpse

Yet another obituary for rock music.
So Neil Young was wrong. "Rock and roll will never die," the whiny-voiced old coot told us, and we believed him. But now along comes Paul Gambaccini, the self-styled "Professor of Pop", to announce that, since only three rock songs appeared in last year's top 100 singles, the genre has expired.
That's it? Because fourteen-year-old girls are buying Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber and Beyonce and L'il Wayne, because that's what the record companies are selling, rock is dead? Leith notes that this is hardly a marker of the demise of rock, but then goes on to note that ubiquity of pop/R&B will have repercussions down the road.
The problem is that if the kids aren't listening to rock, when they go into the music industry they won't make rock. It is going to run out. We have discovered too late that rock, like fossil fuels, is a finite resource. Sometime in the early 1990s, we hit Peak Rock: we now have only managed decline and a Mad Max style post-rock world to look forward to. Don't get me wrong. I love rock music. I'm so uncool I even sing along to the Killers in the car. But I have to recognise that I am that old fart I warned my younger self about. When I go to rock concerts, I don't look about me and see The Kids. I look around me and see The Man. The world's remaining rock deposits are being stripmined by irresponsible members of the boomer and post-boomer generations.
Um. Uh.

On the one hand there is the nostalgia circuit - Peter Frampton going from city to city replaying his Comes Alive LP from 1976, in running order, note for note. The reformation or on-going old-fogey tours - bands like Styx, Kansas, Journey, REO Speedwagon, and Cheap Trick hitting the road together, none of them with the exception of Cheap Trick having anything new to play - are cash-cows, because folks my age and a bit older have enough disposable income to afford the tickets and get a chance to go out, smoke some grass, and pretend they don't have gallstones or a hernia or have lost their hair or that it is gray. They can scream and sing along to songs that were popular, or at least played on the radio, when they were in high school, and feel young again.

If Robert Plant and Jimmy Page doing shows under the name "Led Zeppelin" depresses you - it certainly does me! - or if you have the experience I did at a Rush concert a few years ago, looking around and realizing that, when you start bringing your kids to rock concerts, it might be a sign that you should stop going to rock concerts, it isn't so much evidence that "rock" is dead. Rather, the pretend ideology of rock - it's music about young people for young people, and if you're "of a certain age", you just won't get it - might well have been wrong, after all.

A commenter to this article got it right.

So an entire wing of the music industry is declared dead because singles sales have fallen??

Festivals and live shows are in rude health.

Album sales may be down, but this is due to rock music diversifying and splintering into many sub-genres.
All of these sub genres are in creatively good health but have had to downsize their expectations and stage shows in accordance with their smaller share of the market.

It is doubtful whether any one band or one main genre of rock will unite all rock fans in the way it did in the past.
Back then there were only so many sub-genres and this is why rock bands like The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Judas Priest and Queen ruled the roost. Small pond syndrome.
With new sub-genres being invented all the time and the rock fanbase being subdivided along with it, we are unlikely to see rock dominating the charts as it once did.

I DARE you to go to Download, Sonisphere, Rockness, T In The Park, V Festival, Reading, Leeds, Isle of Wight or Hammerfest, get up on stage and announce that rock is dead in front of a crowd of 70,000 young rock music fans.
I have been saying much the same thing for quite a while. Part of the reason there were supergroups who sold millions of copies of albums that really didn't warrant such sales was the monopoly major labels held, the power of radio in the pre-internet age, and the luxury of a whole lot of disposable income. Part of the reason the majors are in such trouble and CD sales are down across the board is the majors refused to price them properly. Charging as much, if not more in constant dollars, for CDs as they did previously for LPs, even though the technology should have made the price fall, the record companies committed suicide. They still charge almost twice for a physical CD what it costs to get the same set of songs on iTunes. Unable to come to terms with the changed nature of the music public, they will, in all likelihood, go the way of newspapers. Unable to come up with a business model to survive in changed market circumstances, combined with the relatively cheap cost of high-quality music production and mixing software, allowing DIY bands to record, mix, and even produce their own product effectively and less expensively, they, not the genre that kept them afloat for decades, are the ones that are on the way out.

As the letter writer said, the situation isn't so much that "rock" is dead. Rather, there are no bands - no Beatles, no Led Zeppelins, no Rolling Stones, not even R.E.M. or U2 fill the bill anymore - that create a center around which others can revolve. Rather, the musical universe is alight with all sorts of stars of varying brightness. They all have their fan-bases, their little publics that follow them, buy their music, shows up at gigs. Some are bigger, some are smaller, but it's all vibrant and varied and quite lively.

So what if 14-year-olds aren't perceptive enough to realize that Taylore Swift is more a product than any of the alleged music she creates? The biggest rock act in 1965 wasn't the Beatles, it was Hermans Hermits, for crying out loud; the number one song the week of Woodstock was "Sugar Sugar" by the Archies. All of this is to say the story we tell about rock music elides all sorts of uncomfortable realities we want to forget. I think rock will do just fine, and bury yet another obituary.

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