Don't Steal My Sunshine: Is the resurgence of college rock legends good for the future of music?
Before you lay your hard earned cash down on this summer's multitude of reunion tours and related merchandise, stop and think about what they're trying to do to you. We ask the question: Is the resurgence of college rock legends good for the future of music?
The current millennium has witnessed more resurrections than the world has seen in the past two thousand years. The massive influence of Television, the Pixies and Mission of Burma have yanked all three back from a discordant retirement in search of the grand payday that was so elusive during their original run. Back from the mat rise artists that had been beaten down at the end of the '90s by a changing music business; The Cure, Morrissey and Prince have all received early raves for their imminent summer returns after being ruled past their heyday at the close of the last decade. In addition the Internet continues to swirl with rumor and speculation about possible reunions for My Bloody Valentine, Ride and the Stone Roses. Along with every other culture obsessed almost 30-something across the US and Europe, I will line up and lay out the cash for hot comebacks from many of these groups, but are their returns really good for music?
The United States' answer to Glastonbury, the Coachella music festival took place in California earlier this month. Noted to be a proving ground for groups on the cusp of commercial success, this year's line-up featured the Pixies performing in a prime spot on night one, while the Cure held a similar one on the closing night. While there were many other young groups filling the under-card, the overwhelming sentiment, from attendees and supporting artists alike, was that this event was dedicated to the return of these two influential groups. Morrissey headlined a week of sold-out theatre style concerts on both coasts this month bringing famed punk fathers New York Dolls out of retirement as the opener for the east coast gigs. In addition, the Smiths main man Moz will headline the first day of this year's traveling Lollapalooza tour and will be joined for one day on each coast by the Pixies for the top slot on the second day. In my hometown of NYC, Moz and Sonic Youth lead the bill for day one, while day two is topped by the Pixies and the Flaming Lips. This festival which was formed to bring new music in a mobile vaudeville format across the country will now have an average age of well above 40 for it's headlining acts. Despite what it may seem, I'm salivating for the opportunity to see the Pixies triumphant return to New York, but aren't the Strokes really a bit more deserving? They took Manhattan by storm, single-handedly revitalized garage rock and have been the most celebrated and reviled band in Gotham for the past three years. A chance to headline a show of this magnitude in their hometown would have been a much deserved validation for the Strokes.
With great power comes great responsibility. Yes, that means that each of these groups is required to not only troll for cash on the road, but also in our record shops. The Cure have a new album due in June as well as a recent B-side box set; Mission of Burma, Prince and Morrissey all have new albums to coincide with their tour, while the Pixies take the blue ribbon for their product blitz. They have issued a retrospective DVD, a new greatest hits to replace the paltry Death to the Pixies, and served up a limited edition of 1,000 live discs (except for Coachella which was 2,000) for each show on their return US leg in small venues. Between these acts there are approximately 25 pieces of newly available recorded merchandise that will be planted at the forefront of retail outlets from now until summer's death knell at the close of Labor Day weekend. I fell victim to this onslaught late last week. I entered my local mom and pop record shop to inquire about the coming week's new releases as I do every other week. To test of my theory on commercial buying habits of late 20s/early 30s consumers, I limited myself to one purchase. Being intimately in tune with my tastes, my man behind the counter slid both the new Moz Your Are the Quarry and the Secret Machines debut across the counter. After a lengthy internal discourse I left the shop with the new Morrissey disc in my bag. Even forewarned I wasn't able to overcome the powerful personal draw of nostalgia created by the release of the first new Morrissey album in seven years.
Anyone with at least one functioning brain cell knows that television performances equal album sales for artists. Performances on Late Show with David Letterman, the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Saturday Night Live and their various international equivalents can mean the difference in a dollar in a young band's pocket. The deluge of veteran rockers hitting the circuit started in late-April with Patti Smith hocking her new album Trampin on Letterman. She was followed closely by the Cure who snared the Coachella weekend Leno slot that is usually saved for an up and comer. In coming weeks Morrissey will do a week long residency on the Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, and the Pixies will tape an appearance for the Austin City Limits show in early Fall. Add in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony performance by Prince and guaranteed TV spots for both Sonic Youth and Mission of Burma, and one has to wonder if we have a chance of seeing a debut artist on TV before the Athens Olympics.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So let's recap. Top spots on TV and at summer festivals in the United States and Europe are off limits to young lions because of the resurgence of reunited classic acts. Consumers will be so baffled by the glut of releases by returning acts that they won't even be able to name five new albums by bands formed since the year 2000. The media mongrels at TV programs are so busy sniffing around these high profile acts that they're doing little work to find the next big thing. The outlook for new and upcoming artists appears to be bleak. Even with all of this information, I will be the first to admit that the return of these acts has me salivating for the summer music season. I cannot even begin to imagine how much dough I'll drop this year on the Pixies reunion machine. In the back of my mind though, I can't help but worry about the how this flash of past glories affects the future. Looking at the same three areas as above, touring, retail and publicity I think there are things each of these scene legends can do to develop young artists.
The Cure take the cake on this one. Robert Smith and his band of merry mopesters have assembled a multi-act tour for the summer that is being referred to in some circles as "Cure-fest". They have put together a group of bands, highlighted by the Rapture, who are admittedly inspired by the Cure and asked them to open up their summer dates. This is a subtlety that more bands need to adopt. There is a significant difference between sending the message to your fanbase that the opening act is better heard from the bar at the back, rather than overtly stating that the opening bands are influenced by the headlining artist and worthy of the fan's time and attention. This sort of development and fostering environment allows these better-known artists to use their name, or "brand", to support the career of an existing artist. You know it's a sound strategy when the big O uses it. After deciding to bring an end to her record-breaking talk show, Oprah Winfrey spent a year developing Dr. Phil into his own entity so that her followers would have someplace to direct their time, energy and cash long after her impending departure. The results are telling. Dr. Phil has a successful daytime TV program, a best-selling diet book, and has become a guru of the self-help field. Imagine what would happen if the Pixies were to put their considerable muscle behind a band like TV on the Radio.
The reality is that fans will buy whatever merchandise any of these bands puts into record shops. There is visceral emotional reaction that people have when recalling music of their youth. Hell, it happened to me when I bought the new Mozzer record. It was almost as if I couldn't not buy it. Countless songs, moments and emotions fired off synapses in my brain and the reaction was automatic. I looked at my shopkeeper nodded and said, "You are the Quarry". Stepping back from that I think that it's time to package singles from upstart artists with new releases by existing ones. The Itunes store has sold 70 million downloads in just over 52 weeks, finally showing signs of the retail muscles that can be exerted by e-tail. What if every purchase of the new Cure record included a free download of the Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers" single? I'd bet that would translate into significant album sales for the Rapture. It sounds simple (mostly because it is) but this is the sort of artist development and brand association that is missing from the music industry. It's really nothing more than an extension of Amazon's electronic brain model, which in a frightening manner can predict a consumer's likes and dislikes based on past purchases. This model is really just adding the drug dealer marketing plan. Give them a taste, get them hooked and then make the sale.
It is an undisputed fact that TV shows are looking for ratings. The best way for them to do that is to book guests that people want to watch. Thus, booking the Cure on Leno Coachella weekend was a smart move. Now what would happen if the Cure required that Leno also add a second musical segment that included one of their younger followers from their summer tour? It's sound marketing for the Cure since it pushes their upcoming tour and it provides validation and TV exposure for the younger artist. The worst thing that could happen is that media giants at Leno would say no. If they did I'm sure Robert Smith would look quite fetching wearing a Rapture t-shirt on national television. See, the possibilities are endless...
The Future's So Bright I've Gotta Wear Shades
With or without the support of these resurrected saints there is no doubt that there are more young artists worth their mettle than the music industry has seen in long time. In fact, the promotional machine of the Internet is granting a greater number of artists more exposure than print and broadcast publications ever allowed for in the past. The real issue is how to break artists like Bright Eyes, TV on the Radio, the Rapture and countless others to an outsider group of fans who aren't as likely to take a chance on new artists as they were 10 years ago. We know they've got the cash; it's just a question of how to get it out of their pocket to support these acts. The best way to do this is to use all of the opportunity and leverage afforded to these returning bands to do not only what is good for them, but also what is good for the global music community. With the right approach there's enough sunshine around for everyone.