It's hard to spot a cultural shift. The start of one movement and the end of another isn't easy to identify because most people don't care much for change and prefer that the world they know remain constant. It's a comfort thing mixed with denial, and such feelings grow stronger as we age. Besides, change never announces itself, not that anyone would care if it did. Only when we notice that the art we once enjoyed is no longer being produced at the levels we expect do we start to put the pieces together and try to figure what happened and why. In this regard, I'm sad to report that rock is dying. [Photo by Alfred Wertheimer in 1956]
First a qualifier. I'm not saying that rock will disappear or will never again be heard or enjoyed. I'm also not reporting this with glee. I enjoy rock and write about it. What I am saying is that the genre—which tapped into the youth culture in the early '50s and shrewdly remained the music of teens for 62 years—has run its course as a movement and is rapidly expiring.
According to an article by Ethan Smith in last week's Wall Street Journal, the rock concert business is drying up. As followers of music know, arena tours were rock's best hope at survival—and the proverbial canary in the mineshaft. As Smith reports, ticket sales fell 12% globally in 2010—largely a victim of high prices, declining interest on the part of young people, and the domination of senior-citizen rock headliners whose greatest-hits format has been experienced by the same audiences multiple times over the years. In farm terms, the land has been over-plowed.
In North America alone, last year's sales drop was even more pronounced, declining by 15%. Deep down, we know that the lost numbers aren't likely to return. Unless the oldsters who dominate the arena circuit plan on writing new music that takes the world by storm, rock's aging brand will fizzle out with them. Already, older rock icons are being slapped around by the media. Recently, Bob Dylan was taken to the woodshed by John Jurgensen in the Wall Street Journal for croaking through pricy performances—employing a gravelly singing style the writer likened to "a scatting Cookie Monster."
In recent years, rock has been backing away from the kind of outrageous and explosive stagecraft that has come to dominate performances for much of the past decade. Such theatrics have become expensive to put on and supervise, and they no longer seem to light the fires of older audiences or draw younger ones. What's more, Cirque du Soleil has cornered the market on flamboyant jukebox performances—remixing the Beatles and now Elvis for three-ring Las Vegas shows. The Stones, Motown and the entire 1960s can't be far off. Broadway has been on to the trend for years.
Rock's decline began with the popularity of the CD in the 1990s. The digital disc killed off the three-minute single, which in turn rendered radio virtually meaningless. With the fading of radio came the collapse of the chart system, which had kept young consumers on the edge of their seats since the 1940s waiting to see which singles and artists would rise and fall and enter the rankings.
Next came the demise of the record industry in the wake of music's invisibility in the 2000s. Convenient as they may be, iTunes, the old Napster, and illegal file-sharing made music disposable. As album buying was replaced by the instant download, computer users began to find ways around the 99-cent track tab to obtain their music for free, driving music's commercial value to zero.
Bereft of budgets or motivated staffs, the rock music business has been hard-pressed to support the promotion and marketing efforts necessary to build acts and buzz. Without traditional record stores, there no longer are outlets in which to hype must-have recordings. In the past, record companies used to create personalities for artists, so when you bought albums, you felt a kinship to one or more of the artists. With the decline of newspaper, magazine and book reading by the youth culture, the personalities and philosophies of rock artists have become meaningless and moot.
One also wonders what effect the absence of something to hold, look at and read while listening to music has had on declining rock sales. Strangely, the record industry still hasn't figured out how to allow buyers to download liner notes. Or maybe they don't care. But without a tangible personality or something in writing to provide history and perspective, works by rock musicians have become mere specs of digital dust.
As for those who insist that radio is thriving by pointing to the popularity of Sirius XM radio, anyone who has rented a car recently knows that it offers little in the way of quality rock or depth. In addition, enormous choice on the dial only fosters endless searching. I suspect that satellite radio will be around only until more car models offer iPod ports in their dashboards.
As with jazz, rock's "death" simply means that fewer and fewer new acts will be able to break in on a scale that nets them adulation and the American Dream. Acts that do gain Saturday Night Live visibility will have to take increasingly unorthodox routes to get there, since traditional pipelines are rusting and old-school industry pros are in shorter supply. Rock acts that do bond with buyers will have short lifespans, since longevity in the rock market ultimately requires lyrics, melodies and hooks—all of which are lost skills today. This means that even the most popular acts won't have much of a memorable catalogue on which to rely if they intend on touring into old age.
As Ethan Smith noted last week, only big-name acts collecting Social Security checks are filling 55,000-seat sports arenas today. For young fans who still care but can't afford a ticket, there's always a free YouTube viewing. Or hopefully a friend who went to the concert brought a Flip camera or digital recorder and will send along files by email.
The other problem rock faces is that the genre's bag of tricks have run dry. Most young people find new rock to be static and are tired of being dragged off by mom and dad to revisit their youth at older-act concerts. Ask people in their 20s today what they listen to—black or white—and the answer almost always is rap. But one suspects that rap doesn't have long to go either as the twenty-something demographic ages, marries and tires of pulsating beats, textured riffs and provocative lyrics.
Perhaps the most shocking word in last week's Wall Street Journal's headline was "global." Faltering North American concert sales could be blamed on the deep recession of the past two years. Worldwide uninterest in arena rock is the kiss of death. Further clouding the financial future of rock is that acts can't convert to the kinds of small clubs that have sustained jazz and folk. Since the early '70s, rock acts have been designed for large arenas—complete with powerful sound systems and elaborate lighting and staging. You can't convert an arena act to a more intimate club.
Sadly, rock as we know it has reached a tipping point. We're living in a time when excitement is defined by proximity. In the desktop age, there's little joy in paying a fortune to sit beyond the 12th row. Which brings up another sore point: Good seats are never available to the average fan. Unless you're an executive in a corporation sponsoring the tour, know a relative of the band or are with the media, choice seats are impossible to come by.
And finally, there's the issue of excess quantity. Thanks to the web, all the rock recordings and videos one could imagine are just a few clicks away. Realistically, it would take at least two lifetimes to consume all the rock—new and old—already available digitally.
Perhaps the seemingly silly Beatles: the Rock Band video game, rolled out in 2009, has more merit than we first thought. As sagging concert sales suffocate rock, perhaps the next phase will be videos of rock concerts into which you can insert your image and play an instrument that winds up added to the original track. For instance, you could be one of the acts at Woodstock or share a mike with Janis Joplin in Atlantic City or jam with the Cream in Miami. Then after the concert, you could fight off the paparazzi, order room service, drink too much, drop acid, trash the place, get busted, overdose and watch yourself be pardoned by your state's governor—all on your iPad.
JazzWax note: Want to share this post at Twitter, Facebook or any other networking service you belong to? Scroll your cursor over the "Share Link" below (see the little green icon?). When the box pops up, just click on your service of choice. If you don't see it, refresh your browser.