Is Rock 'n' Roll Dormant, Dying or Already Dead?
Like jazz or vaudeville, rock 'n' roll faces significant cultural and technological challenges—true epochal shifts of the kind that always seem to mark turning points in history.
Rock 'n' roll has been declared dead more times than Nikki Sixx has OD’d. So I never gave the idea much thought until a couple of months ago, when ominous clouds began to darken my rock 'n' roll fantasy.
What happened? My news feed filled up with reports of plummeting album sales and mainstay venues shutting their doors. Friends in established touring bands reported having to go home early because they weren’t making gas money on the road anymore. Hundreds of Kickstarter campaigns sprang up from bands that, only a few years ago, would have had no problem making money just by playing local gigs. Despite a wealth of talent and ambition, rock 'n' roll look looks lately to be either dying, dead or perhaps already zombified.
The outlook for rock has been bleak for years, really, but I’ve managed to stay optimistic, because in my experience, the really interesting things in rock 'n' roll only seem to happen when almost nobody is paying attention. I think back to the early ‘90s, when the music I had been listening to started sounding stale and predictable, radio rock was reheated garbage and every club band seemed like recycled hair metal or introverted, overcomplicated sludge.
They all said rock 'n' roll was dying, and I almost stopped going to shows. But then, BAM!—everything seemed to take off again, almost out of nowhere. You could go to a house party and see Nation of Ulysses and Bikini Kill tear the place apart right in front of you, everyone sweating and throbbing, screaming out the chorus and spilling beer on each other. At the end of the show, with your ears ringing and hair all messed up, you’d buy a record and a shirt and the drummer’s 'zine and then the next night, you’d go see the Dwarves or the Boredoms and the place would be packed. Then you’d do it all over again the next weekend.
It was fun being part of a secret rock 'n' roll army—you could learn a couple chords and go on tour, meet people from all across the world, put out records and sometimes even make your money back on them. Then Nirvana happened, and people were like, “Oh, rock is still a thing?” Pretty soon, the underground was hollowed out and the kids at the bottom of the rock 'n' roll food chain had to start the cycle all over again.
That cycle has always brought rock back from the brink, and it’s been on the brink since forever. Rock’s death knell has been sounded since at least 1959, when it was barely on solid foods yet. Elvis got drafted, Chuck Berry went to jail for messing around with a white woman, Jerry Lee Lewis was essentially banned after marrying his 13-year-old cousin, and on top of all that, Buddy Holly and Richie Valens, who had seemed to represent rock’s best hope for the future, had to go and die in a plane crash.
The media at the time was more than happy to declare the fad of rock 'n' roll over, but the schmaltzy pop of the day stood no chance against the hairy menace of the British Invasion, which by the mid-'60s had captured an entire generation and revitalized rock for a good decade. When Joplin and Hendrix died in 1970 and the hippies all got jobs and moved off their communes, it looked like rock was dead for real, this time. Disco, James Taylor and the Eagles took over the airwaves, but in the shadows, bands like The Stooges, MC5, and eventually the Ramones took to the underground and kicked off a resurgence that has powered the genre to this day.
So I’ve actually learned to rejoice upon hearing that rock has yet again been declared dead. In the past, all that these premature obits have really signified is that the poseurs will clear out for a while and let the real rockers carry on in sublime obscurity, creating, nurturing and supporting the next wave of awesome bands that are sure to rise up and carry us to the new promised land of hard beats, sick licks and bad-ass basslines.
But lately, I just don’t know. It could be because I’m getting older (Oh the horror! I’m 41!). Or it could be because I live in a smallish town a few miles off the big indie tour circuit. But for the first time, I’m coming around to the idea that the age of rock 'n' roll could be truly, actually and for reals over, this time.
The sad thing is that rock’s perceived decline has nothing to do with the quality of the music that’s out there right now. I’m still seeing fantastic shows on a regular basis and picking up great recordings of bands that are either pushing the genre in unexpected ways or perfecting its established tropes. Underground veterans like Redd Kross are totally killing it. Weird gypsy art rockers like Barons of Tang are blowing minds wherever they go. Underground record labels like Swami, Burger, Recess and In The Red are cranking out tons of great rock 'n' roll on LPs, CDs, cassettes and whatever other format you could possibly want. Magazines like Razorcake and The Big Takeover continue to document and promote amazing new music.
Yet no art form is without its limitations. Like jazz or vaudeville, rock faces significant cultural and technological changes—true epochal shifts that always seem to mark turning points in history. Jazz was overthrown by suburbanization and the perfection of amplification, which made it possible for three or four guys playing three or four chords to take the place of a full band of expert musicians, driving coast-to-coast to promote their new sound on bottomless tanks of cheap gasoline. Vaudeville was defeated by nothing less than the rise of the motion picture and the advent of mass communication. Similarly, rock is up against the internet, globalization, cultural atomization and the almost total collapse of the music industry.
Remember when the internet was supposed to free us from the tyranny of the big, bad, record biz? Me and most of my musician friends thought it was hilarious when Metallica went after Napster for allowing people to download their songs for free. What could be wrong with sharing your record collection with a few million friends? I guess we thought it would only hurt rich stars on major labels, but we failed to see how it would affect the expectations of the next generation of music fans. To most young people, the idea of buying music has become either quaint or absurd. Band T-shirts are not especially cool anymore, so hardly anyone’s buying those either, and touring costs have gone up to the point where making money on the road is a gamble, at best.
Throw in the competition from new and flashier forms of entertainment, as well as the byzantine gentrification of rock itself, and you’ve got death from not a thousand, but a million cuts. And it doesn’t stop there! All these factors are at least understandable, but what has me scratching my head is the idea that there are lots of younger people who simply don’t care for live music at all.
I honestly don’t get how they can think that way. Maybe they’ve never seen a really great rock band in a really great venue, when the crowd is pulsing and writhing, pressed up against the stage and yelling for more. Maybe they only know how to dance to computer sounds while they’re rolling on Molly. I had one younger guy tell me he liked rock music in general, but he didn’t like to see bands live because it never sounded exactly like it did on his pirated recording of the album.
I just had to sigh. When I was 14, I would hop on a bus or hitchhike for hours through some of the most dangerous parts of L.A. just to get to a show where I didn’t know a single other person, had never heard half the bands on the bill, and had no reasonable hope of even getting a ride home. I was that committed, and half the time, it was actually worth it. Nowadays, you can’t get kids to walk a block to see a show, and if they do, they complain about the $3 cover charge.
Severance Package working it in Clarion Alley, San Francisco -- and some folks showed up
I played a show in my own band recently that was sponsored by the local “active rock” station and billed as a “Rockfight” -- a battle of the bands. The station played weeks of promo spots for the show, hyped both bands on their local spotlight feature, put up hundreds of flyers and interviewed us all talking some friendly trash to each other on the day of the show. The local weekly paper ran a snippet, both bands worked social media, and we even paid for a Facebook ad promising free T-shirts to a handful lucky audience members. (Facebook ads are a joke btw, but that's a topic for another day.)
My band almost never does stuff like this—none of us listen to a lot of radio and we had heard shady stories about the club—but we figured maybe it would bring out a couple of younger fans and support a new all ages venue. Who knows, we might even (gasp!) sell a CD or something. So we showed up and did our thing. The sound system was awful, the stage was dangerously close to collapsing, the door guy tried to charge us entry to our own show, and the few members of the audience were mostly composed of friends I had shanghaied into going on the ruse that it was my birthday. Total paid attendance: 21 true rockers who I'm forever grateful to for hanging in there.
The band we were up against sounded competent and label-friendly, in contrast to our somewhat rougher brand of powerslop, but at the end of the night the radio guy unexpectedly pronounced us the winners and said maybe if we came down to the station he could scrounge some pizza coupons to give us as a prize. We all laughed about it and went back to the birthday party in progress, where I spent the door money we had earned on a single round of drinks for the band. (I went ahead and embezzled the $1 we made on merch from the guy who donated it in exchange for a free sticker. Don’t tell my bandmates!)
I’ve played worse shows, and obviously this is a subjective anecdote. Though I’m told we sound pretty alright, maybe the truth is that my band is just too crappy to attract a bigger audience. I honestly don’t care all that much because I’m one of those dead-enders who will keep playing well past the point of having any sane or rational reason to do so. But the point is, a rock radio station of any size in a college market used to be able to draw dozens, if not hundreds of people to just about any event. Today, having your show marketed for two solid weeks by a 50,000-watt station over an area of several hundred square miles does not necessarily translate to even a single paying customer.
When I first started playing rock music, people who were good at it (not me, obviously) could eke out a meager living, even if they never got really famous. When fans stopped buying records, playing live turned into a hobby that you might break even on if you worked at it hard enough. Now it’s a labor of love, and an expensive labor at that. I don’t know how it is for artists in other genres, though I suspect it’s gotten tougher for any band composed of people who actually play instruments onstage. For DJs, rappers and electronic artists, maybe it’s easier since they are hot right now and don’t have to split the money as many ways, but in the end, I suspect what killed rock is likely to get them, too.
Oh well, fellow rockers, we had a good 60 year run—twice as long as the jazz age—and like the old saying goes, it’ll never be over for us. At work the Monday after our show, a coworker asked if we’d won the battle of the bands. I had to think about it for a second.
“Yeah, we won the battle,” I said. “But I think we lost the war.”