The Top Seven Reasons Rock is Dead (and How to Revive It)

August 7, 2009

There's no denying it -- times are tough for rock 'n' roll. Gone are the days of the huge multi-platinum rock records and the months-long stays atop the Billboard singles chart. While shrieking guitars and pummeling drums were once the de facto battlecry of youth and rebellion, they've now been relegated to a tax write-off for record labels. Just how did rock 'n' roll lose its way -- and more importantly -- how can it regain its former glory?

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7. Stiff Competition

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Problem: This is an issue that not just rock 'n' roll, but the music industry as whole, is having trouble figuring out how to solve. In the simplest terms, there's just a lot more free sources of interactive and non-interactive entertainment available now than there was even a few years ago. LOLcats, Facebook, DVR, Xbox -- the bottom line is that it's harder than ever to get the kids off their asses and out to the shows to rock out.

Solution: Burn down all their houses. Or at least their couches. Either that, or the bands could make their shows cheap (or free). And perhaps even more importantly, people need incentive to get off their asses. And in the world of rock 'n' roll, that incentive is the promise of a show. Rock 'n' roll is supposed to be "spectacular" in that the event is a spectacle. That doesn't necessarily equate to microphones that shoot flames or Rob Halford from Judas Priet riding a Harley onto the stage in assless chaps, but bands need to give people a reason to come out to the shows, instead of just putting on the album and staying in their comfort zone.

6. The Fall of the Record Producer

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Problem: The actual recording process of a record is every bit as important as the quality of the tracks themselves. But sadly, the majority of the records coming out now, especially in the larger sense of "rock 'n' roll" sound basically the same. Why? Because digital recording gives people way too many options. Digital recording means you have unlimited tracks to layer on top of one another, and unlimited freedom to manipulate those tracks however you want. In that process, records lose their unique personalities because record producers are no longer forced to find creative solutions to recording obstacles or ideas they might want to pursue during recording.

The end result is generic, unnatural-sounding albums that sound less like bands and more like products, in that the unique characteristics and perhaps serendipitous imperfections of human beings performing live music are so smoothed out that all you're left with is a totally generic and predictable outcome.

An example: One of the reasons Joy Division sounds like Joy Division instead of every other post-punk band from that era is because producer Martin Hannett had their drummer, Stephen Morris, set up his drums on the rooftop of the recording studio, which ended up playing a major role in the distinctive sound of their records. Bands and record producers really don't try things like that anymore, because the assumption is that if they want a particular sound, it's probably just a few clicks away.

Solution: Sometimes, less is more. Bands need distinctive-sounding albums, and sometimes it isn't evident how to achieve that until you just experiment with things outside the typical standards and practices. And the lifeless process of clicking through filters on Pro Tools probably isn't going to get the job done.

5. We're Sorry, the Record Industry is Currently Freaking Out

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Problem: The record industry signs a band because they hope to make money off the sales of their record. But everyone shares music freely now, so nobody is buying records anymore. As a result, the record industry is in a tailspin while it stumbles around trying to figure out a solution before CEOs have to give up their private jets.

Solution: Leave the record industry for dead. More often than not, the only thing bands get out of record deals with major labels is massive amounts of “advance” debt hanging over their heads.

In the Internet era, bands can record their own albums, release them on services like iTunes and Artist Direct, and set up touring networks with similar bands across the country. Perhaps the real reason the record industry is freaking out is because they're starting to realize how redundant they are now. Or maybe it's because people now buy music based on its actual quality because they can listen to it first.

4. Where's the Scene?

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Problem: Every time rock 'n' roll has gotten a foothold within a youth movement, there’s been a strong sense of community among the bands that represent that faction. Think of the acid rock movement in the '60s, the New York scene in the '70s, the hardcore punk scenes in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. in the '80s, and the Pacific Northwest scene in the late '80s and early '90s. These bands supported one another and gave the trend a sense of cohesion and momentum.

Now, it’s the exact opposite – many bands seem to think the right way to go about things is to separate themselves from the rest of their local scene and attempt to ride the coattails of bigger touring acts.

Solution: One band can only have so much impact. It benefits everyone if bands make an attempt to bring together similar acts and create a tangible scene that’s bigger than one band and one gig at a time. It is advantageous to all the bands involved if people start getting word that an entire region has got something interesting going on.

3. Quantity Over Quality

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Problem: Ever wondered why your favorite band put out two really awesome records, and then five crappy ones? Part of the rationale behind this often has to do with the way record deals are constructed.

It’s not uncommon for bands to find themselves committed to a record contract that includes lofty sales expectations, only to later realize they’ve bit off more than they can chew. Often, if the first record or two fail to meet sales expectations, bands suddenly find themselves in a mountain of debt to their record labels, and are forced to keep putting out more records (perhaps with less emphasis on integrity and more emphasis on sales success) in hopes of digging themselves out of the hole.

Solution: Lack of artistic freedom (creatively or financially) is the death of good art. It’s now actually viable for bands to opt to put out their own records, or sign deals with indie labels that don’t lead them into music careers filled with debt and frustration.


2. Style Over Substance

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Problem: Record companies continue to look to younger and younger audiences as a source of income, partially because they’re less critical of artistic merit, and also because they may be less likely to download the record instead of buying it (though that's starting to change, too). Accordingly, the music they hock to those audiences often has less to do with integrity and more to do with hair styles, as teenaged girls don’t care as much about musical ability as they do about “hawtness.” The result is pop drivel delivered to you by someone with an excellent set of cheekbones. 

Solution: This one certainly isn’t an easy answer, as music fans have been grappling with this issue since the dawn of pop music. As always, the most immediate and obvious solution is to speak with your wallet. Turn off the Top 40 radio and simply refuse to spend money buying that crap. Instead, focus your efforts on better bands which may not have as much marketing muscle behind them, but actually put out great records.


1. Gimmie DANGER

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Problem: A major part of rock 'n' roll’s appeal has always been the sense of rebellion, the sense of danger, and the idea that music can transcend the realm of entertainment and have an actual impact on society and culture. Rock 'n' roll didn’t become an overnight sensation in the 1950s because it was safe for the whole family -- it became popular because Elvis was making everyone’s parents lose their shit. The Doors didn’t become household names because their live shows were sedate and predictable. They became legendary because it was anyone’s guess whether Jim Morrison was going to get naked on stage or cause a riot. Slayer is revered in heavy metal circles because they have zero-compromise approach, not because they play it by the numbers.

Unfortunately, some people never got the memo. This, this, and this are not dangerous.

Solution: It’s a simple answer, but a difficult task. Rock 'n' roll needs to be dangerous again. Rock 'n' roll should be something your parents hate. It should be something the government wants to keep tabs on. It should be at the heart of every risky decision and flippant reaction we make. Rock 'n' roll should to be born from emotion, not a desire to cash in.

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