Friday, August 1, 2014

Rock is Dead, Long Live Rock


I'll apologize in advance to The Who for cribbing the lyric from their 1972 single "Long Live Rock" as the title of this post, but I couldn't think of anything more appropriate to headline what I'm about to write. I'll also acknowledge upfront, as a disclaimer of sorts, that the following is going to be made up mainly of my own opinions and observations and as such, will contain a lot of generalizations; however, based on my experiences and deep knowledge of the subject, I'm confident that most of them are, on the whole, accurate enough that I'm not going to make any apologies for them, either now or later.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, let me get to the thesis of this entire post: that music, and rock music in particular, as an important and central force in peoples lives is for all intents and purposes dead and buried. Much of this is down to technological advances and economic factors, but in my opinion the most significant reason is cultural; however, there is a symbiotic relationship between the cultural, technological, and economic factors that is at play. They're all interlocked and have combined into a feedback-type loop that seems to perpetuate and expand this effect. You see, up until, let's say the year 2000 or so (for sake of a nice, round number), the lives of countless youth and adults had at their center a deep and almost reverential place for music, popular or otherwise. Let me clarify upfront that I realize I'm writing in somewhat hyperbolic terms and I don't mean to imply that music should in any way be the central or only force in anybody's life at the expense of family, friends, religion, etc. However, I'm not exaggerating when I say that music used to hold a spot alongside all of those guiding forces in the lives of millions of people.

As a devout Christian, I mean no disrespect with this picture, but it fits the theme of this post perfectly


It's beyond my intention or the scope of this piece to delve into the changes in society wrought during the 1960s; that information can be found elsewhere, and from a variety of differing perspectives, including from many who actually lived through it (unlike me). However, as a student of the era and of rock music from the 1960s to the present, I make the following arguments with the utmost conviction. In my opinion, starting with the first rock n' roll boom in the 1950s and continuing unabated until 2000, music was a central force in the lives of millions of people. Now, they started off as fans like we all do, but for so many of us, the music became more than just a diversion or background music. Instead, it became a vital part of our lives and something that couldn't be lived without. Every single and b-side, every EP and album became an event, something to look forward to. The thrill of the hunt in seeking out a rare record (or tape or CD, whatever your format happened to be), or of finally getting your hands on a new release after waiting so long for it to be released...that was a feeling of joy only eclipsed by the ecstasy of listening to it for the first time and immersing yourself in the entirety of the sounds emanating from your speakers. It was also more than that...there was always more to it than just the music. The songs (mostly) said something, the artwork was (usually) interesting, and even in the cases where it happened to be little more than aural fluff, it was an escape that had the power to transport you wherever you wanted to go for as long as it took the track time to go from 00:00:00 until it ended. The great thing, too, was that as the bands matured, grew, and changed so too did we fans, most of whom stuck with them for the ride. As the artists grew into adulthood and their focus and experiences (which were subsequently expressed in their music) changed, the fans who were still with them could relate because we'd gone through the same changes.  I can obviously only speak for myself, but I know it to be true for countless others as well myself: music became a part of our lives that was as essential as anything else, and there was no doubt about it. It doesn't take an effort for me to listen to music, think about it, read about it, write about, create it, whenever I can...it just is and has been for as long as I can remember. I hesitate to call it a religion because it isn't, and as a Christian myself I think it's disrespectful to equate the two. However, they are awfully similar in terms of the space they occupy within my very being and, I suspect, that of anyone reading this who feels the same way.

All of this brings me to the main thrust of this entire article...somewhere within the past 10-15 years or so, a confluence of technological advances caught up to the economics of young music fans and this centrality of music withered away to the point that in 2014 I feel like it's all but dead. Now, before you accuse me of writing the diatribe of a cranky 34 year old man heaping scorn on the young Millennial whippersnappers all around him, please hear me out (and I'll concede upfront that my being a cranky young/old man does color this piece just a bit). In addition, please keep in mind that by admitting upfront that I am including a lot of generalizations, I also realize that they're not 100% applicable to everyone I'm painting with my broad brush. As you read this, I'm sure you'll come to the conclusion that I don't think there are any true music fans anymore, and you'd be wrong. I realize that there still are devoted young people for whom music means as much to them as it does to me and others.  My overarching point is that we are part of a dwindling breed that is now simply not as common in 2014 as we were in 1994, 1975, or 1968.  Perhaps the overriding theme of this article is that while there are still passionate music fans under 30, very few of them LIVE for the music the way many of us older fans did and continue to.  I fully expect the slagging off I'm sure to get for this piece, as well as the accusations of being an ageist musically pretentious snob (it wouldn't be the first time I've been accused as such).  What I'm trying to articulate is quite difficult to get across within the limitations of the written word; thus, I welcome any feedback and discussions, whether you agree or not, in the comments section at the end of this post.


Let me take you back to an ancient time before the internet was ubiquitous and various advances such as downloading music (whether legally or illegally) and streaming music (ie Spotify, Pandora, etc) became the norm. Back in these mythical times, if you wanted to own recorded music you had to buy a physical copy. This entailed actually traveling to wherever you were going to buy it (typically a local record store, department store, or in their earlier days, one of the big box retailers back when they actually had legitimately good music sections). Not only that, but you had to wait until it was released. There was no way an album was going to leak in its entirety weeks or months before its release date. Once you got there, you had to first hope there was a copy of whatever it was you wanted to buy and you had to actually pay money for it. Of course, for many music fans, including the ones whom I've described above, this part of the process became almost ritualistic in nature and something to look forward to...record stores became places to meet, hang out, listen to and discuss music, and discover new things to listen to while you browsed and shopped for what you were looking for. Clearly this was the norm in the earlier decades, but even as a kid in the 1980s and as a high school and college student in the 1990s, this was how it was done and I spent many fond hours  (and still do!) partaking in the whole experience as I amassed a huge collection of cassettes and (mainly) CDs. However, with the advent of downloading music, purchasing individual songs via iTunes and  Amazon, and now streaming, there is no need for most younger music fans to physically purchase their music. Also, because this new method of music consumption places emphasis on individual songs and playlists rather than albums (and let's face it, most of today's here-today-gone-tomorrow stars that have hit songs and zero staying power wouldn't be able to fill an album with quality material if their lives depended on it) and on non-physical formats, there is a de-emphasis put on albums. Just try to find an average twenty year old who cares about cover art and whatever statement a particular album makes. Go ahead, I'll wait...back so soon?

Compounding all of this, the elevation of the individual song, which is now available a mere mouse click away for $0.99, combined with CDs continuing to be overpriced at $12-20 a pop has led to a near collapse of physical music sales. Today's young music fan doesn't care about the statement an album makes, or if any of the songs besides the radio single are any good, or what the album art looks like. They want the song downloaded cheaply and quickly in order to add it to their digital playlist. Unlike in years past, where music was something that required an actual outlay of hard-earned money and the listening experience of which was an event to be savored and enjoyed either alone and/or with friends, in 2014 music is just another disposable commodity that's cheap, convenient, and little more than background music for driving, partying, or filling the silence in the background wherever you may be.  

Another aspect impacting the lack of importance of music in the lives of younger people is the fact that there are so many other distractions available to them now, such as video games, smartphones and tablets, movies, endless TV channels with on-demand programming, and so on.  With so much to choose from to fill in every bit of spare time they have, today's young people don't need music as something central in their lives. I realize this sounds like a case of "in my day, we had to watch grass grow for our entertainment" but I'm simply pointing out irrefutable fact. It's the same reason why kids today barely play outside anymore, whereas in my youth I spent more time outside than in.  Add in the fact that the last truly great decade for both music and a true music scene was the 1990s and that there hasn't been an album or band that has really shaken the industry out of whatever doldrums it's been stuck in, and it's a recipe for complacency and music no longer being an art form of expression, but instead embracing its current nature as  disposable commodity. The fact that instrument-based music (apart from country music, but that's a whole other can of worms I don't intend on opening here) is no longer the dominantly popular genre and it all makes sense. The vast majority of top-selling acts are those that don't write their own music and don't perform it themselves, and many of them can't even sing it without the help of autotune or pre-recorded vocal tracks. How else can they be note perfect when running and jumping non-stop during their concerts, which these days are more performance-as-spectacle as opposed to actual live performance?  Perhaps the biggest factor of all is that video games have replaced stereos as the electronic device of choice for young people and their friends; instead of listening to music and/or trying to learn instruments and form garage bands, it's now all about playing multiplayer online video games for hours on end and interacting with your friends, whether they're sitting on the couch next to you or you're talking to them hundreds of miles away via headset. I'm not saying one is better than the other...it's all down to personal preference, but it can't be denied that the times they have a-changed.

 No, these are not pictures of me, but I agree with the statements!


It also seems as though there are few, if any, modern icons and leaders in today's music, at least those who are admired for both their creativity as well as their image/personality. There are scant modern examples currently producing quality music, with only Jack White and Alex Turner immediately springing to mind, whereas when one looks from 2000 backward, names like Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan, Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn, Michael Stipe, Morrissey, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, and more are legion. Part of it is because rock music isn't as relevant and all-consuming in the popular culture of 2014 as it was even twenty years ago, let alone in the 1960s and 1970s; another factor is that as mentioned above, since most of the biggest mainstream acts in recent years are not writing and performing their own music, there is less of a premium on creativity and the entire creative process and thus, the figures who are held up as icons are feted more for their fashion and outrageous behavior than their musical talent. I leave you with this final question before opening myself up to accusations of "ageist!" "rockist!" "old crank!" "snob!" and the like: Is everything I've detailed as it pertains to music a symptom or a signpost of a problem with 21st century society?  I leave that for the reader to decide, but personally, my answer to the question is "yes."

 "Rock is dead they say, long live rock!"

14 comments:

  1. Thanks, Jim! I will say that writing this has not only stirred up loads of good memories, but has made me realize how much it all means to me...I'm proud it's a part of my life and who I am, as I'm sure you and so many others are, too.

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  2. I agree 100% I still like to buy my music. One of my past times now is going to charity shops and collecting old lp's. I can't do mp3 ;-)

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    1. Nice! I do the same thing scouring the used CD sections of my favorite record stores. If it's a band I like but don't love, I stream it or only have it digitally, but if it's one of my essential bands, I have to have every physical release, no question. And as you imply, you can get them so cheaply now that it's rather nice!

      I will say, writing this post and discussing it with people here and elsewhere has really made me realize how much it all means to me (not that I already didn't know!).

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  3. Shouldn't this article be titled "popular music is dead" or "the mainstream is dead"? Suggesting that "rock is dead" is like saying that all guitar music by alternative acts is nowadays not as good as the manufactured pop that plagues the charts. When in fact it's rock music that's still providing all the best music out there. Yes, of course it isn't getting the attention it should, but rock music is alive as it's ever been, a lot of people would say its better when its not commercialised like mainstream music. It's popular music that's "dead". Maybe not in terms of sales, but certainly in terms of creativity and quality.

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    1. I definitely agree with you that popular music is dead, and for all the same reason that you detailed in your comment and that I did in the article. I suppose I could subtitle the article "(as the dominant genre in pop music)" to make it more accurate. I think we're both saying the same thing, although I do think rock in 2014 is a bit stale in general, with exceptions of course. These things tend to go in cycles though, so I expect (hope!) there's another great boom period that will follow this lull we're in at the moment.

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    2. Absolutely. and yes i agree that some rock music in this day and age is stale, but only the ones who are ironically the most successful! I have a similar "what went wrong with music" piece which has taken me since last year to write, and I'm STILL working on it! There is a LOT more that has caused the slump than what most people think! It's an interesting read, but its messed up my head thinking about the music industry and the mess it's in!

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    3. I know what you mean, sometimes you have so much in your head that you want to spill out that you don't even know where to start! I've been there and still have that problem from time to time.

      I think there are so many factors as to why music is in such a terrible state these days, beyond what I managed to write about in this article. Everything from record company greed and shortsightedness (they were only a decade late to the digital/downloading party) to radio stations all being bought up by huge mega-conglomerates (hello, ClearChannel) and the insidious pay-for-play scheme that pumps endless plays of insipid lowest-common-denominator pap at the expense of what is truly good and popular. I could go on but I think we're on the same page when it comes to a lot of this.

      It just makes me angry as well as sad because it wasn't that long ago when things were still (relatively) good in these regards. But it seems farther away that ever compared to the state of things nowadays!

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  4. I tend to think that there are just as many stale mainstream rock acts as there are indie or underground rock acts for that matter. I tend to agree with Drew on the account that rock music 2014 in general, of course with a few choice exceptions has become rather stale, and in comparison to 2013 and the year before that, 2014 has fewer notable memorable releases thus this far. If this were 2013 or 2012 for that matter, I would think that Drew even attempting to write the above article was just joking. However, unfortunately I have been following music, both mainstream & underground this year, and I can seriously see the decline in quality releases versus 2013 or 2012 before it!

    The long & short of it, the past couple of years many had blogs had been writing rock off as dead, but now I am honestly more inclined to believe this to be more so than ever before! There is most certainly something wrong Drew; I just don't think that some people have woken up yet. Obviously if you are aware, as well as other bloggers out there who used to review indie albums (who no longer do so), then yeah there most certainly is a problem. We are heading into a musically apocalyptic direction that isn't pretty........Just look at the sign of pyramids that seem to permeate not just most mainstream album art these days, but even underground art, then look at the back of the dollar bill...........then you will truthfully know who is in control of the record industry, and it is ugly..........

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    1. Are you saying the Illuminati are the reason rock music in 2014 sucks?

      But I agree, there is very little in the mainstream that is interesting in terms of rock and the pap that is popular is truly garbage and utterly disposable. There is still so much to be done with guitar-based music and I think there are a lot of great bands out there carrying the torch, but even those that are have been around several years now. I hate sounding like an old fart but there's very little NEW rock that compelling.

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  5. Well, let's just put it this way......... I really don't know one way or the other who these people are Drew, and it is unfortunate that whoever they are, they are most certainly making themselves manifest everywhere you look now in the entertainment industry. They are also the ones that control where the money comes & goes. From the Superbowl half time show to the music purchase, to the radio stations you listen to, their influence is everywhere.

    What a better way to gain control over the masses than dumb people that are already uneducated to begin with, with dumb down pop music?

    It is for this reason too as to why the music industry will never recover the way it was once upon a time, due to the fact that when commerce gets in the way of the arts, it is when every ounce of substance or identity is drained from the music you listen to. As long as these figureheads have their collective hands wrapped around businesses like "Clear Channel", for example, things aren't ever going to change. The only way that this is ever going to change Drew is if people gain a voice, speak out, and demand that quality musical arts be played on the radio, and that less mainstream, more underground artists get more radio play that they deserve!

    In conclusion to my statements here, Drew, I would like to leave on a final musically prophetic note concerning what Frank Zappa warned us about what would happen(and what is happening now as we speak) in the music industry if we didn't stop going in the direction we are going now.

    Check out Frank's interview on You Tube:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZazEM8cgt0

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    1. I absolutely agree that society as a whole has been dumbed down a ridiculously huge amount in the last 20 years and this is reflected in our pop culture and music. Music, as I wrote, has also morphed from an art form into a form of quick, disposable entertainment and background noise...it's to the aural sense what chewing gum is to the sense of taste...something temporary that is sorely short of the real thing.

      I do also think, though, that the days where musicians and labels could make a fortune and a comfortable living from selling records is gone, never to return. In fact, the 60s to the 90s were an anomaly. Much of this was the monopoly of the industry over the means of production (studios, equipment) as well as distribution and formats (vinyl, tapes, CDs). Once technology caught up and people (including yours truly) could make their own music sound great in relatively cheap home studios and music went digital, the ability to get rich as a musician and label went away, at least for the real artists who had talent and the drive to set off on a sustained career of music as an art. Now it's all about wringing every Penny out of every flash in the pan no-talent flavor of the month...the music consumer today flits from one song to the next and the label is right there with them. The question is, who is using who?

      As for FZ, I love the guy's music and he was dead on in so many ways about music and the industry...ahead of his time in much of what he said.

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  6. You do know though Drew that some of the best music you will never hear will never be played on the radio............This theory hasn't changed, and has been a constant since the golden age of underground music from the 60's - 70's.

    For example, there are some great 70's Italian progressive rock acts that you will never hear on the radio, not only because the artists primary language is obviously Italian, but also because they don't fit into what could be regarded as a commercially viable mainstream format. Other things from the 60's & 70's psychedelic & prog eras are becoming much more well known today, due to the internet, with the likes of the Anatolian psychedelic/progressive rock music scene from Turkey during the 1970's, or how about the 70's African Zabian/Zamrock scene, which scored so many excellent psychedelic delights & talent......... Take a look at the Indonesian rock music scene of the 70's, which has only as of recently, like the Zamrock music scene come to light in a major way via the internet.........

    My point is, there is a wealth of information out there on not just music from the past, but also underground music of today, that by rights you should have the right to raise the bar as to what is good or great in music. Why? because it is freedom of choice, which so many people don't realize that if you rely upon the radio for your musical answers, you are missing out on a world of music out there just waiting for people to discover.

    On the other hand, regardless of today's underground/DIY indie music scenes, I cannot honestly say that there is currently ANY ONE UNIFIED music scene that stands out today. Whereas back in the 60's & 70's there were much better unified music scenes both stylistically & geographically, I cannot honestly see this to be the case today. Honestly, when you consider that there is no unified Turkish Anatolian, Zambian, Indonesian supported musically today, then it is easy to see why even in other countries around the world, there are so many faceless artists/acts that are just merely riding on the coattails of current dumbed down U.S. trends.

    You want intelligent music today? Look underground. Otherwise, look to the past for a much more intellectual view into the underground. As time goes on I fear the future because we aren't going to get any smarter, and we are actually living in time when being stupid is smart, and being smart is not intelligent! And, it could get to the point that if anyone tries to become intelligent, you may wind up dead for those rights! Yes, this is what it has come to; just look at today's kids, and you will know that is your future!

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    1. You're definitely right that the best music these days is out of the mainstream and/or underground, that's for sure!

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