Words by Scott Rowley
Album sales are down, festivals are headlined by an ever-decreasing pool of ageing bands, and the music industry is crumbling. The new issue of Classic Rock has a special 25 page report on “the crisis facing rock”, from ‘the death of the album’ to the new ideas changing the rock scene. So is rock really dying?
Let’s start at the most obvious place: The End.
The End, it seems, is nigh. “It’s strange in rock culture just now,” Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie told BBC4’s Review Show in December. “It’s kinda dead, I think. It’s over.” The Cult’s Ian Astbury, meanwhile, has decided that the album has also reached the end of the line. Harking back to the two EPs (Capsule 1 and 2) his band released in 2010, he toldRolling Stone last month that he’d rather do that again than release another album. The Cult’s UK record label, Cooking Vinyl, aren’t so keen, however. “They aren’t interested in the capsule idea,” said Astbury. “They want to put CDs on shelves. I’m like: ‘What shelves?’”
“Rock’n’roll has died,” former Buckcherry bassist Jimmy Ashhurst Facebooked recently, “and nobody’s really that pissed because we caught it in a box and can look at it whenever we want.” Ginger Wildheart posted similar sentiments days after the Sonisphere headliners were announced. “It would appear that rock music is finally on the machine that goes bing,” he wrote. “The revolving door of (fewer than 10) worthy festival headliners indicates, to me anyway, that we have outlived the era of ‘big rock’.”
The cracks aren’t just beginning to show, they’re as wide and deep as the lines on Keith Richards’ face. The legends are getting older and, let’s face it, dying. In a decade’s time, can we reasonably expect to see tours from Bob Dylan (aged 72), the Rolling Stones (oldest member: 72), Motörhead (Lemmy is 68), Lynyrd Skynyrd (Gary Rossington: 62) or ZZ Top (Billy Gibbons: 64)? Who will fill the country’s stadiums, headline our festivals and fill our arenas then?
The old music business structures (record companies, distributors, record shops) are crumbling. Musically there seems to be a lack of new ideas, and a whole load of people recycling old ones. New bands are struggling to find an audience. The diversity of media channels means that, even if they do get played on one radio station, it’s hard to reach any kind of critical mass, to build a substantial fan base. Support slots don’t pay, and record companies don’t pay tour support (money to subsidise touring). And anyway, promoters don’t want to take a risk on an unknown quantity when they can win on a nostalgia ticket.
“It’s very unlikely that we’re going to play the States with an unknown band opening for us, because promoters won’t allow it to happen,” says Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, a band that once gave an unknown band called The Darkness a US tour support. “Promoters want us going out with Heart or Poison opening for us because they know it’s gonna sell tickets and that’s all they care about. At the end of the day I can’t argue with them for that. It makes sense, but doesn’t help new bands.”
In 2011, DJ Paul Gambaccini declared it was “the end of the rock era. It’s over, in the same way the jazz era is over.” Could he have been right?
The truth is that it’s not just rock music facing these apocalyptic pronouncements. Believe what you read and it’s all going to shit. In literature the death knell has been sounded for poetry and the novel – an outdated, outmoded form, according to some, with predictable plot devices and story arcs. More recently, the popularity of smartphones has led to cries about the future of photography (“It’s really weird,” award-winning photographer Antonio Olmos told the Guardian a month ago. “Photography has never been so popular… but photography is dying”).
The movie business? DVD and Blu-ray are as doomed as the CD, out-distanced by Netflix and YouTube, with concerns that the work itself is being compromised by formulas and test-screenings. “I think [Hollywood] has achieved everything they’ve always dreamed of,” director Terry Gilliam said last month. “The audience now seems to be very dumb. They’re watching the same film again and again. When they go to a movie now, it’s almost like hearing a pop song; you know the rhythms, you know when the downbeat is going to come, you know when the explosion is going to come… People cling to what makes them comfortable.”
You could put all this angst and dread down to plain old fear of change. In his book about apocalyptic thinking, The End of Time, Damian Thompson notes: “There is a school of thought that Millenarianism [ie. a belief in apocalyptic transformation] always springs from the clash of cultures, one technologically superior to the other.” And the shift from physical artefacts (in the music world, records and CDs) to digital (MP3s, streaming) is certainly that.
Rock music is also up against its past. If you were a teenager in the 70s or 80s, you had a couple of decades of rock history to get your head around. Teenagers now have 50 years of music to delve into via Spotify, plus new sounds to discover every day. Older music fans have enough deluxe reissues and reunion gigs to keep them occupied (“This is the way that pop ends,” wrote pop boffin Simon Reynolds. “Not with a BANG but with a box set whose fourth disc you never get around to playing”). A kind of future-phobia has taken hold. The respect given to the bands of the past is so great (and mounting) that new bands are on a hiding to nothing: how can you compete with that?
While pop culture used to ricochet from one trend to the next, these days we’re in The Age Of More Of The Same, with the websites you visit storing info on your tastes and encouraging you to have, well, some more of the same. ‘People who bought this product also bought…’ ‘If you like that, you’ll like this…’ ‘You’ve been listening to so-and-so lately, why not try this…?’ The result: consumer-driven stasis.
“The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks – that’s gone now and will never be repeated,” said Noel Gallagher. “In the mid-nineties, it was the bands and a small group of fans that had ownership of it. Now it’s the consumer that drives it, so music will go wherever the consumer demands that it goes. We will not have another punk, or another acid house, or another Britpop. That’s a fact.
“Because the consumer gets what he wants, and the consumer don’t know shit. If you’d asked the consumer in the middle of prog rock: ‘What do you want next year?’ he’s not going to say: ‘I want Johnny Rotten’, is he?”
What does this mean for us, the aforementioned ‘consumer’? Well, you could argue that we’ve never had it so good. That now is the best time ever to be a rock fan – 60 years of rock’n’roll, blues and rock to delve into. Almost every record worth having reissued and easily available. Web sellers like eBay and Amazon connecting us with previously hard-to-find rarities. And great new music everywhere. Free downloads, Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud and sites like Noisetrade and Bandcamp – profiled in this month’s magazine – mean that you can try before you buy (if you ever buy).
New bands, freed from the tyranny of fashion, no longer urged to conform to what the NME or Kerrang! think is hot, can do whatever the hell they like. The influence of the record company has waned. The temptation of a big payday gone, fewer bands are urged by ambitious A&Rs to chase prevailing trends, churn out a ‘me too’ record that sounds like The Killers or Kings Of Leon or whoever’s big.
We’re moving from mass culture to a more individualistic ‘configurable’ culture. Rock fans have switched from being passive consumers of trends dictated by a mass media, to people able to configure their consumption in a way that pleases them, via playlists and hand-tailored preferences. It is the logical next step – we got what we wished for! The vinyl album dictated that we listen to certain songs by a single artist in a certain order. And once you got bored of that, the cassette allowed you to liberate the best bits from all the different albums and jumble them up in a way that (you hoped) impressed girls. The CD meant you could easily skip Maxwell’s Silver Hammer or Hats Off To (Roy) Harper.
The digital world is just the next step. Just yesterday I edited together two separate tracks by a band called And So I Watch You From Afar using Audacity and stuck them in a Best of 2013 playlist that’s seven hours and 24 minutes long, so far. (Confirmation, if ever it was needed, that my days of impressing girls are looooong gone.) Think of practically any song you ever wanted and you can hear it almost instantly thanks to YouTube. You are connected directly to the stuff you love – whether it’s prog-metal, stoner rock or surf punk – and completely able to ignore the stuff you don’t like. (I genuinely have no idea what One Direction sound like.) Like, uh, where’s the catch?
Well, just maybe, the catch is something we learned from comic books: with great power comes great responsibility. If we’re in charge, what sort of rock scene will we create? One that’s fearless, open-minded, progressive and exciting? Or one that’s stale, inward-looking and suspicious? Because rock isn’t dying, it’s just changing. What it’s changing into, no one really knows. The internet isn’t done messing with our heads and changing the ways we discover music.
It looks plausible that the future will have fewer big acts, but it’s equally likely that those big crossover bands will be the ones we hear about and see at the top of festival bills. In 2011, of all the individual MP3s purchased online, 74% sold fewer than 10 copies each, while 15% of total revenues came from just 0.00001% of songs. Somewhere between the 74% and the 0.00001%, we have to find a business model that works for everyone.
Says Ginger Wildheart: “The future of the [rock’n’roll] genre exists on a more grass-roots and practical level. Excess is over, bloated fees and abuse of power have to be terminated without prejudice, and a more attainable future adopted that favours smaller bands and artists. Time for something a little more realistic, I say.”
Realistic doesn’t necessarily mean unsuccessful. Quality tends to rise to the top. Even as the influence of traditional media channels wanes, human nature means that we want to like the same things. In her book Blockbusters, Harvard business professor Anita Elberse notes that “because people are inherently social, they generally find value in reading the same books and watching the same television shows and movies that others do”. Think about a TV show like Breaking Bad – a cult show that suddenly everyone started watching. In the US, its final episode prompted 1.2 million tweets and5.5 million Facebook updates and comments while it was on-air, and viewing went up 300% during the course of the last series. There might be little room in the new world order for hype, but we’re more connected than ever before, and we want to share. We’re music nuts. Turning people on to good music is what we do. All we need is the good music.
“Someone asked me: ‘What do you think the problem with the music industry is?’” Dave Grohl said a couple of years ago. “I said: take the Adele record. It’s an amazing record. Everybody’s so shocked that it’s such a phenomenon. I’m not. You know why that record’s huge? Because it’s fucking good and it’s real… Imagine if all records were that good. Do you think only one of them would sell? Fuck no! All of them would. If all records were that good the music business would be on fire…”
Give us the spark and we’ll light this place up.