Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rock is Dead - Long Live Rock 'N Roll

I found a pair of interesting articles this weekend on the subject of today's music industry. It's no secret that the pop music world as we know it has been steadily collapsing, as the rise of digital downloads and iPods coincide with the death of the CD. As a lifelong music lover - and someone who plays guitar just enough to harbor rock star fantasies - this is a genuine concern for me.

First up is this cover story for the UK's Prospect magazine. It points out that while CD sales have collapsed across the board, demand for concert performances has never been higher. In the past, artists would take a loss on their tours, in hopes of making it up on album sales. Today, it's the opposite.

Prince - isn't it great to see him at the top of the game again? - literally gave away copies of his last CD at his concerts. More and more musicians are offering free downloads or streaming, if only for a short time. And I've noticed that many who are issuing vinyl releases are including free digital downloads.

And it's not just the advent of downloading and piracy. I think the internet's emergence as a cultural force, through spam portals like MySpace, YouTube, weblogs, virtual communities, have given artists a greater power than ever before. Clearly, we're at the point where you don't even need the major labels. Not that you ever did, really. They used their power greedily, and their cruelty and theft of their musicians is legendary. Now they're finally getting their karmic justice.

Why even bother going with some label that will steal your work, and all the money, and leave you holding the bill? What's the sense of going horribly into debt for the sake of some rock star fantasy, one that the suits will never allow you? Heck, we're a generation removed from the punk revolution, and it's DIY aesthetic. Ani Difranco - one of my musical heroes - is a famous example of running your own label, controlling your own career, and making a living at it.

So what's the story about the death of the CD, and recorded music's lost value in the consumers' eye? For that, I'd turn to this article in the Washington Post from Monday the 16th. It seems that while current releases continue to flounder and sputter, the market for catalog releases remains strong. The list of best-sellers from past decades reads like, well, everybody's favorite music - Beatles, Zeppelin, Floyd, Jimi, Marley. And this has extended to my generation's music, too.

Did you know that AC/DC's Back in Black sold 440,000 copies last year? Do you realize that trounces most of the junk that's passing for new music? Hah! I see vinyl copies all over the place, and all I'm thinking to myself is, "Why don't I have this one yet?"

Metallica's Black Album? 275,000 copies sold last year. That just blows my mind. That album was on the Billboard charts for five years, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. Heck, I went through four of five CDs myself. Hmm. Actually, that's another key reason why I've moved to vinyl. Those seemingly indestructible CDs were flimsier than paper.

Tragically, Guns 'N Roses' Appetite for Destruction continues to sell, hitting 113,000 last year. And Axl lost his mind and scuttled that band for....why, again? That remains one of the great rock 'n roll mysteries of my lifetime. Heck, just go out and see Velvet Revolver to make up for it. I was always more of a Slash fan, anyway.

A lot of newer music is continuing to sell, including Saint Cobain, Radiohead, Beck, The Pixies, Weezer, The Clash, yadda yadda. You know the drill. Just look at your own music playlists. Look at your own ever-growing vinyl collections.

So what does this say to me about the state of pop music in 2007? Only what I've already experienced on my own. I still love music, more than ever, actually. My appetite for new sounds and new experiences - rooted in my freshman year in the St. Scholastica dorms - hasn't waned one bit. I can't speak for the majority of my stuffy, repressed, ever-fattening peers who are rotting away in the burbs, but I'm still squarely in the Age of Discovery. And I don't intend for that to end.

But when it comes to new music, I've almost completely tuned out. I have no interest in it. The problem isn't downloading, it isn't Apple, it isn't MySpace, and it isn't my portable turntable. No, kids, the problem is very simple. Today's music is shit.

Pop Quiz - what's the best band or musician to emerge from this decade? Anyone? Anyone? If you mention "American Idol," I'm gonna hit you. If you answered "The White Stripes," you'd be correct. That's it, really. Where's the Pearl Jam, the Soundgarden, the Radiohead, of this decade? Where's Saint Cobain when we need him?!

I'll put White Stripes on that list, and I really can't think of anyone else who's, well, talented. Anyone who can play a damned instrument. Anyone who can sing. Anyone who actually knows their roots, and actually has a plan for moving forward. I think Icky Thump is the best album of the year, and it also happens to be a thousand times better on a vinyl record than on CD. Imagine that. Now there's the other music trend to deal with.

Will album sales ever recover? Can any one musician or band capture the entire nation's attention, like Elvis or The Beatles? And would vinyl records ever really break out in popularity, or is this just another one of those fads we'll lose interest in? I hope not. This whole decade has been a disaster. It's the Age of Bush and Cheney. Doesn't that just send a chill up your spine?

So I really don't have any answers for the death of popular music. Other than, of course, that we need Music That Doesn't Suck Ass. Is that too much to ask for? Turn off the damned Disney Channel and pick up an instrument. I'll lend you my Black Sabbath vinyl.

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