The Independent ran an article today pointing out that ‘only three of 2010's 100 bestselling singles were guitar-driven’. That’s pretty bleak. But when I think about it, I can’t remember the last time I heard rock music on a mainstream radio station, in fact it has been noticeably absent. Just try to name some rock bands appearing in the mainstream charts right now. Not easy, is it?
This morning Kristofer Dommin, lead singer of the band Dommin, asked the following question on his Twitter:
“What do YOU contribute the decline of rock music in the landscape to? Is rock guilty of not evolving? Is it just a trend?”
The question made me sit back and wonder what on earth could be contributing to this sudden apparent apathy. Is it something that we are doing as music listeners? Or are we, the rock bands, guilty of cutting our own throats somehow? This decline in interest is particularly worrying for those of us in bands who are slogging our guts out in rehearsal rooms each week. Is there any point in carrying on if no-one wants to listen to us? Maybe if we can uncover the source of the problem then we can figure out whether it’s just a passing phase or a long-term, serious threat to the genre itself. The first step is to consider whether the problem is with supply or demand...
Perhaps there are fewer new rock artists out there to feed through into the mainstream in the first place? Maybe the talent just isn’t there? If this is the case then we need to investigate the cause of this breakdown in supply. There are, for example, huge cost issues involved when playing in a band as instruments, petrol to drive the band around, rehearsal rooms and recording costs don’t come cheap. Maybe it is difficult in the current financial climate for new artists to afford to play? I also wonder whether new artists become disenchanted when they make their first foray into the world of live music because it is not the instantly glamorous lifestyle that the media leads us to expect. Carrying heavy instruments around, playing hideous dives in the middle of nowhere to three drunk locals, sitting in the rain outside a locked venue, sleeping in the back of a tiny van with hung-over bandmates - the early days are not pretty. Some ‘pre-packed’ rock bands seemingly appear overnight without this history behind them and if they have history then it has been clearly swept under the carpet, so the reality of gigging in the early days may come as a shock to some new artists.
An expectation of immediate success is also fostered by reality TV shows that distort our concept of the music industry’s mechanism for finding talent. Reality TV is the whipping boy for a great deal of our cultural grumbles, but it’s true that such shows teach young artists that there is no need to tout yourself around back-street pubs and clubs playing to empty rooms and sending audition tracks to labels. You just upload a video to YouTube or enter a competition and you are plucked from obscurity and fast-tracked to the top of the charts. As the X Factor auditions demonstrate, some singers haven’t even stood on a stage before and in a blink of an eye they have a number one hit and they’re booked to play Wembley arena. There must be oodles of sublime talent sitting around in bedrooms waiting to ‘be discovered’ on Youtube rather than booking gigs in local venues and getting their music out there.
Yes it might be getting tougher for new artists to stay active and the channels feeding them into the mainstream may be changing, but when I consider fellow artists that my band and I meet on the Birmingham circuit alone there doesn’t appear to be a rock famine out there. There are plenty of gigging bands that fulfil the criteria for a bona fide rock band and they are desperate to break into the larger market. So the problem cannot be with supply, it must be with demand...
As music listeners, what do we expect from the music we listen to and where could rock music be falling short?
Some rock bands that have broken through into the public consciousness in the past few years have arrived on the scene pre-packaged with readymade scripted personalities and posters, t-shirts and stationary sets waiting in the backrooms of department stores. We all secretly suspect that merchandise and the saleability of a band is higher up the shopping list of the music industry than the actual noises a band makes. And, if true, then this saleability would be massively affected by the artist’s appeal to the mass market. This mass market - and the music industry in turn - has become increasingly squeamish when it comes to signing raw artists that push boundaries and it is noticeable that our music has become increasingly sanitised and child-friendly. It’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll after all, right? Not anymore. Take mainstream pop singers like Rihanna and Britney Spears for example. How many times have they been blasted recently for being too raunchy? We need to stop for a second and think about the real target audience here. If your ten-year-old is pole dancing in the front room then maybe it’s time to take the Rihanna CDs off her, but kiddy-related fears trump our adult tastes every time and without fail the party is ruined for the rest of us.
And it’s not just sex that gets our disapproval; it’s violence, drugs and all the general ‘unsavoury’ elements characteristically (although often unfairly) associated with rock too. Take the whole Marilyn Mason/Columbine High correlation. Without resurrecting the debate, the US branded Manson as the influence behind the killings and the entire Western world went on censorship red alert as a result, fearing that any guitar track would cause their teens to start committing violent crimes. Hence rock music took a huge knock that it has since struggled to recover from (interestingly, how many serial killers relaxed to classical music before going on a rampage? Should we stop all teenagers listening to Debussy or Chopin in case it stirs psychotic tendencies in them?). And finally, I’m not condoning drug or alcohol abuse by any means, but the very second a musician is caught in a room with something mildly dodgy, drinks a little too much or has more than one woman in a hotel room they are vilified and ostracised from the industry with no second chances. No ifs, no buts. I’m with the censors on the drugs issue to be fair, but a small part of me wonders how many influential bands we would have lost if we had taken this approach back in the 60s and 70s?
It is difficult for a genre of music that is so closely associated with pushing boundaries and ‘living life on the edge’ (even if in lyrics alone) to thrive in a climate of oversensitivity that increasingly panders to delicate sensibilities that might be offended by explicit lyrics or a tiny bit of raunchiness. So maybe it is the kindly-killjoy brigade that is responsible for marginalising rock to the point of death?
One final option is that rock is simply seen as out-dated in a world of movie-set music videos, epic stage designs and pre-packaged artists that are carefully selected and briefed to fill a desirable hole in the market and then plucked, vamped and painted with the brightest gloss shine. The stereotypical dirty-gritty, spit-on-the-stage rock artist is very difficult to conform to this ideal and perhaps the sight of a group of people on stage playing instruments live is seen to be somehow amateur and undesirable. If this is true then it is a crying shame because, besides from various possible side-effects like kids will stop showing an interest in learning to play instruments, an essential part of the glorious experience of discovering a new artist and enjoying their journey is unearthing their history, the funny anecdotes, the people they’ve met while gigging, their on-the-road-grown quirks and idiosyncrasies and most importantly what drives them to share their music with their fans and fellow musicians. Many new artists look great on the screen, but they do not come with these attractive extras to flesh them out. Pre-packed musicians will write boring as hell biographies....
If I take a step back and look at my own band, Turn Off The Sun, then I can’t understand why - if the newspaper reports are to be believed - bands like us will be condemned to the scrapheap before we’ve even plugged in our amps. Yes, we’re feisty on-stage and we put energy into our performances, but we’re not deliberately offensive to the average music listener; we don’t use lots of foul language in our lyrics, condone violence or take drugs so we’re pretty ‘safe’ (apart from our drummer Neil who has a tendency to fling his drumsticks across the stage, he’s pretty dangerous) so we’re not going to cause any riots or turn your children into psychotic monsters. We come with an interesting back-history, silly anecdotes and all the ‘DVD extras’ that appeal to a fanbase. We’re fairly pretty and take good photos so we tick all the shallow, superficial boxes to keep the poster printers happy. We, and many bands like us, are poised on tenterhooks for an opportunity to make our donation to the music landscape, champing at the bit to flesh it out and make a contribution worthy enough to wrench music back from the teetering precipice of a trashy, pop-driven cesspit of linear crap. And this is what confuses me about the whole situation more than anything; how can something die when there are so many like us - musicians and music lovers alike - who are desperate to feed it?!?