Thursday, March 15, 2007

Hey Hey, My My, Rock and Roll Will Never Die ... Right?

Everybody's talkin' 'bout the new sound/Funny, but it's still rock and roll to me
- Billy Joel, "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," from his 1980 album "Glass Houses"

I recently added a feature to my blog page in which I will keep a running list of the last ten songs I've downloaded. As I looked over the list, and as I wrote my piece on the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, I started to think about my lifelong relationship with rock music, the current decline facing the music industry, and the traditional explanations as to what is wrong.

Sales in the music industry, even taking into account legal downloads, have fallen. Major institutions, like Tower Records (where I worked for a year right after college) have gone under. Labels have undergone consolidations, sales and cuts. Rock albums make up a small fraction of the album sales charts each week. For someone like me for whom rock music has been such an integral part of my life, it is more than a bit sad.

For a long time, the "it's cyclical" argument made everyone feel better. People were quick to say, "Look, rock was dead, and then Nirvana's 'Nevermind' was released, and everything changed." Sure, but "Nevermind" came out in 1991. Or, put another way, it has been a lifetime for one of those horrible girls having her Sweet Sixteen bash on MTV since rock's last moment in the sun. Sixteen years is not a cycle. It's a death knell.

The thing about rock music has been that there was always a new generation waiting to take over. What was "rock" today became "oldies" or "classics" tomorrow. In the 1950's, Elvis was viewed as scandalous, with a fear that his hips would remind girls they had sexuality. Within ten years, Elvis was singing in family-friendly movies. "My Generation" was shocking when it came out in 1965, with Roger Daltrey's stuttering and declaration of "I hope I die before I get old." Now, "My Generation" sounds quaint and is a staple on classic rock and oldies stations.

And the pattern went on. When I was in high school, Led Zeppelin was the band that worshiped the devil, and if you didn't believe it, you were told to just play the records backwards; Ozzy Osbourne was a danger to us all; and Iggy Pop was so subversive you couldn't even hear his music on the radio. Now, they all have been used in car commercials. But, that's okay. From Elvis to the Who to Zeppelin to Ozzy to Nine Inch Nails to Marilyn Manson, there was always someone waiting in the wings to carry things forward. And, of course, the same lines could be drawn in other kinds of rock music, say from the politics of John Lennon to Patti Smith to the Clash to Rage Against the Machine.

Except, the lines are ending. When "Nevermind" came out, the result was a renaissance in rock. You can argue the merits and originality of this class of artists, but you can't argue that the era produced bands that would have an impact. Pearl Jam and Green Day are still together, continue to produce music on a regular basis, and still matter. Green Day's last CD, "American Idiot," was nominated for the Grammy for Album of the Year, sold very well, and, more importantly, was really, really good. Fans and critics agreed that Pearl Jam's eponymous last offering was one of their strongest efforts in years, and it sold better than its immediate predecessors. Bands like Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins made great records that still feel relevant. There are more examples, but the point is the same. The period after "Nevermind" was a fertile one for rock music.

But what about now? Where are the Pearl Jams and Green Days today? I looked at my iTunes list of recent downloads and saw that I had bought more than one song from the following artists: The Subways, The Coral, The Sounds, The Reason, The Shins, The Thermals, the Plain White T's and Camera Obscura. Will anyone be talking about any of these bands in ten years? The Shins have a shot. After that, I'm dubious.

Looking at my list (as well as at reviews of recent rock records), I feel like rock has split off into two groups, with very little crossover potential between them: Disposable artists that produce a hit or two before flaming into oblivion (let's call them The Darkness brigade, after the band behind the infectious one-hit wonder "I Believe in a Thing Called Love") and critically-acclaimed, out-of-the-mainstream critics' (and geeks') darlings (let's call them the Arcade Fire clan).

The thing is, there were always one-hit wonders and too-cool-for-school sensations. But, there was also a third category: Artists that were both. It was possible to be critically-acclaimed, geek-approved and still sell records. Elvis was cool. The Who were cool. The Clash were cool. Nirvana was cool. And, they old sold millions of records. That is what I see missing from rock music today, and, more importantly, that is what I think is fueling all the "rock is dead" feelings.

How did this happen? My first instinct is to blame boy bands. For everything, not just the decline of rock. I know that if I just put my mind to it, I can pin 9/11 and global warming on the Backstreet Boys. But, since boy bands have been out of fashion for several years now, even I have to admit that the current problems in the music industry are not their fault.

I think the problem is a lack of artist development, which comes from a total move to short-sightedness in business. I don't have an MBA (I barely know what an MBA is), but I have worked in corporations before. The one thing you learn working in the business world is that nothing matters beyond that quarter. Making the numbers for the current quarter trumps any long-term concerns. I once worked for a publishing company that had a bizarrely-high percentage of its updates come out in December. Why? Because every release from the first quarter was eventually pushed back to the previous fourth quarter to boost the year's profit numbers. The fact that the volume of releases meant lower sales for the titles did not seem to matter. It was all about getting the numbers for that quarter and that year.

The entertainment business is no different. In the current music industry environment, artists like Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams and Marvin Gaye would be working odd jobs to get by, because they would have been dropped by their labels after their initial recordings did not sell well. (Yeah, I know, we might be better off without Bryan Adams, but I like the guy, so sue me.) "Appetite for Destruction" by Guns N' Roses took more than a year to break. If it was released now, the label would have killed promotion for the album (and maybe dropped the band) when it didn't hit after a couple of months.

The music industry now goes for the quick hit. Artists have become disposable. I know that companies have to serve their bottom lines and their stockholders. I get it. That does not change the fact that their policies have caused a fundamental shift in the kind of music that is produced. And, this shift does not allow for innovation and prevents the development of the next generation of rock artists. Everything in life has a price, and this is the fee the music industry will have to pay. Based on sales numbers and trends, this decision is not serving the long-term financial health of the industry.

When Billy Joel wrote the line I quoted at the top of this piece from "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," he was facing, for the first time in his career, the emergence of a new crop of artists that were pushing him and his peers aside to be the next generation of rock stars. I can't imagine any rock singer writing a song like that now.

When they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Patti Smith had Zack de la Rocha and REM had Eddie Vedder to do the honors. But, if/when the days come for Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam to enter the Hall, who will induct them? And, more importantly, 25 years from today, who will be worthy of induction? At the current pace, it will be critically-acclaimed artists that people have barely heard of now, and will probably be completely unknown then. Is that where rock and roll is leading? I really hope not.

Suddenly, the whole cycle argument isn't sounding so bad after all.