Is Rock Music Dead? How One Guitar Player Can Save Rock 'n' Roll
The Rock Guitarist: An Endangered Species
I write about guitars. I try to be informative, and to serve as a point of reference for new players and those who want to learn more about the instrument. Above all I hope to be helpful, so that up-and-coming guitar players who read my posts can benefit from my three decades of experience and get a jumpstart on their music careers.
But this post is about none of that. Instead, consider this a cry for help, a call to arms, a sounding of the alarm. Honestly, I also expect it to end up as somewhat of a rant. I’ll do my best to avoid that, but no promises.
See, the world around us is burning and many people don’t even realize it. There is an insidious presence that has permeated modern culture. It is a disease of thought, a malady of the soul. It is gradually leeching the substance from our society and turning legions of otherwise intelligent people into some kind of artistically mindless zombie horde.
It is, of course, modern pop music.
There has always been pop music. That’s nothing new, and certainly nothing bad. There is a place in the world for all kinds of music, and all kinds of music lovers. But never before has society embraced pop music to the extent that other forms of music are so blatantly disregarded.
These are dark days for rock music, and there seems to be no end in sight.
This post will explain what I think is wrong and, more importantly, what needs to be done about it. Maybe you’ll agree with me, and I’ll say some things that you yourself have been thinking for a long while. Or, maybe you’ll disagree and call me an idiot. You won’t be the first!
Either way, if you are a guitar player, I think you’ll agree with my main point, and it is this: Rock music needs a guitar hero, right now more than ever. We need the next Eric Clapton, the next Jimi Hendrix, the next Jimmy Page, the next Eddie Van Halen right now.
The world is depending on it.
What’s Wrong with Music Today?
I recently asked myself this question when, due to circumstances beyond my control, I was forced to spend several hours watching morning network television.
Apparently, many of these shows have musical guests (or they did that day anyway) and each of the performers were worse than the one before. Trendy. Pop. Hip hop. Sterile. Packaged. Processed. Talentless. But, heck, Ellen loved them.
If this were an isolated incident I could let it go, but this world we live in seems to be increasingly dominated by such performers. Trendy pop singers have always been around, but in the past there has always been a balance between the pop world and the rock world. Today, pop stars dominate, and like a biblical plague of locusts they are everywhere.
Unless you unplug your television, stay off the internet and refuse to open your mail, you simply can’t get away from these people. I don’t go looking for the stuff. In fact, I actively avoid it when I can. Yet for some reason I have to know that people called Pitbull, Beyonce, Jay Z and Lady Gaga exist. They are in your face all the time, everywhere you go.
What has changed in the past decade or so? Where have all the rock stars gone? Whatever happened to the days when to be successful at music you had to be, well, a musician? Does anyone play guitar anymore? And, no, Taylor Swift doesn’t count.
I am fully aware of how out of touch I am with the mainstream. People have called me a dinosaur when it comes to my views on music and culture. With each passing year the music world seems more and more removed from what I fell in love with as a teenager, when any kid willing to put in the effort and believe in himself could practice hard, form a rock band, get a record deal and share his music with the world. But I still love music, and I love guitar, and it makes me sad to see it all change so much.
The Way Things Used to Be
The evening following my enlightening experience I got to pondering some things. To assist in the pondering I decided to have a few cold ones and listen to some music. I chose The Grand Illusion by Styx. It is the epic album that brought the band to national prominence, and, while released when I was only a little kid, today I fully appreciate its impact on the music world.
Whenever I listen to albums like this I put myself in the shoes of people who owned the original vinyl when it first came out. This record no doubt spoke to countless teens and young adults, inspired them, impressed them and made them happy. For them it wasn’t just music. It was part of life.
Music was very different in the ‘70s, and even though disco was making everyone stupid there was still a lot of appreciation for rock music. For all intents and purposes, Styx was a pop band of the time. I say this because mainstream culture loved them, not because they were trendy. In fact, you can look back to the big-band era and say Sinatra or Benny Goodman were pop artists, for that matter. But pop in days gone by is very different from what is happening today.
Styx sold tons of albums and reached out to people across the globe. Today, many of those people think back to the time in their life when a certain album came out and remember the good times, or even how it got them through some hard times.
Bands like Styx were incredible musicians and innovative songwriters. They did their thing, and people responded. They weren’t alone. There were lots of real bands and actual musicians back then, doing amazing things and getting a positive response from a general public that appreciated their music. So, which rock bands can we say that about today?
Styx Was What We Used to Call a "Rock Band"
The Decline of Rock Music
When you have a minute, take a look at the Billboard Hot 100 Songs of 1978, the year after the Grand Illusion was released. You’ll see Styx on there for Come Sail Away. You’ll also see the Rolling Stones, Wings, Queen, Foreigner, Kansas, Steely Dan, Jefferson Starship, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Boston.
There are also some solo performers who are amazing musicians and songwriters such as Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, Joe Walsh, Paul Simon, Bob Segar and Jackson Browne.
You’ll see some total garbage on there too, but this was the disco era after all. The point is that, even during the heyday of disco, rock musicians were well appreciated. Remember, these are the most popular singles of 1978 overall, from all genres.
Now check out the Hot 100 from 2014 and see if you can spot the rock bands. It will take some doing, but you may notice a handful of bands like Maroon 5, Imagine Dragons or Coldplay. I'm not sure I would call them "rock bands", but at least they are bands, sort of. I guess that’s the best we get these days.
Going back ten years, I see eight rock bands represented in the 2005 Hot 100. In 1995, there are eleven. In 1985, during the decade when I started playing guitar, I count a whopping nineteen different bands with singles in the Hot 100, and that doesn’t include solo artists like Bruce Springsteen, Brian Adams, Phil Collins and David Lee Roth.
So what happened, and why have things gone so badly off the rails?
Rock Music Isn’t Dead Yet
Here’s the thing: Rock music is still around, and there are tons of people who still love it. There are even a lot of young people who love it. But people seem to love it in a historical context. People love AC/DC, Van Halen and Led Zeppelin. Heck, even those popular talk shows I complained about like to have bands like AC/DC and Van Halen come around when they release a new album.
But where is the 2015 version of AC/DC? Where is the 2015 version of Led Zeppelin? Surely they are out there, and if you want to do some digging you will find them. In fact, I’ve always been a big believer in hunting down good underground music, and you certainly don't need to rely on the mainstream media to tell you what to listen to. That was true in every decade, as it is today.
Unfortunately, that's exactly what most people do. The general public will never know anything about up-and-coming rock bands because mainstream culture has moved in the polar opposite direction.
So why aren't mainstream entertainment sources finding these bands and shoving them in our faces like they do with Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj? Why is there such a push toward hip-hop and modern pop music while rock music is put on the back burner, even though there are obviously so many fans of old-school rock out there?
Why Rock Bands Struggle Today
All of this is only speculation, but I submit that one issue may be how the music industry works today.
Music producers are in the business of making money, as well they should be. They are going to put their time and cash behind artists who bring them the fastest, most reliable return on their investment. You can’t blame them. This is business.
Compared to rock bands, solo pop singers are way easier to manage, support and grow. You’re talking about one performer whom you can throw a real band behind, lock in the studio with some real songwriters for a month, bang out a record and hopefully make some money. If it goes wrong, if the pop star gets into trouble or somehow ceases to be productive, you cut your losses and move on to the next pop star and try again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Compare that to working with a band. Can you imagine trying to manage the personalities and behaviors of the Rolling Stones in the ‘60s, Led Zeppelin in the ‘70s, Motley Crue in the ‘80s or Guns N’ Roses in the early ‘90s?
To me they are some of the most talented rock bands in history, all excellent musicians and songwriters, and everything that is right in the world of music. But I’d guess that countless producers, managers and executives lost a whole lot of sleep worrying about who was going to get arrested, get mad and quit, go on a binge, get in a fight, crash a car or worse.
If just one of the five guys in your band goes bonkers for a little while the whole project comes to a screeching halt. For all the bad press Justin Bieber gets for misbehaving, he is a choir boy compared to Motley Crue back in the day.
Good rock bands are so amazing because they walk that dangerous edge, but this tendency for disaster also makes them tough investments. From this perspective, if you are a music producer wouldn’t you rather deal with a replaceable pop princess instead of a raging, barely controllable rock band?
Consumer Culture and Music Made for Consumption
All this would be a moot point if people were more demanding when it comes to music. And this is the second problem.
If you are reading this, music by real musicians is probably very important to you. It’s important to me too, but, sadly, most people don’t feel the way we do. They like music well enough, but it is pretty much background noise to their life. They may gravitate to an artist or song for a while, but soon enough they move on to something else.
In a fast-moving world dominated by social media there is more pop in pop music than ever before. If is trending, shared or liked (or appearing on morning network TV) it will get attention. It may be fleeting attention, but that's okay.
It would be nice to think it worked the other way around, that record companies would react to the consumer and produce what they wanted. If people cared more about music it would work that way. As it stands, as long as people will accept sub-par music created by sub-par performers, that’s what the record labels will keep pushing. Again, can you blame them? It’s business.
The same thing happens in other aspects of society. Why would the major television networks bother producing anything of substance when people will readily lap up reality contests and talent shows? Why would a fast-food joint serve up a steak when people will happily purchase cheap burgers?
This, more than anything else, I think is the driving force behind the demise of rock. In a throwaway, consumer culture people simply have a different mindset than they did in the past. This gives the record companies even more power to shape what consumers will spend their money on. Instead of filet mignon, they're going to feed the public a string of cheap cheeseburgers and we're going to eat them, because people no longer have the attention span for anything else.
Again, don't blame the record labels. They are giving people what they seem to want. It will only change when people recognize and care about the difference between quality music created by real musicians and real songwriters, and music created simply for consumption.
The Rock World Needs a Guitar Hero
Reading this post, it may seem like I’m saying anything that isn’t rock music with flaming guitars has no value. That’s not true. I’d be thrilled if jazz, blues, bluegrass or classical suddenly took off and became the most popular form of music out there. Maybe we’d see shows like America’s Got Bach or Chicken Pickin’ with the Stars. How awesome would that be?
All I’m saying is it’s a crying shame that musicians who work so hard to excel at their instruments have to work part-time jobs to get by while dime-a-dozen pop performers become millionaires.
But here’s the thing: Remember when I asked where the 2015 version of Led Zeppelin might be? Well, that band is out there somewhere. They’re rehearsing for hours every week in some garage or dank cellar, writing their own music, playing whatever gigs they can get, and their guitar player is busting his hump to get better at his instrument.
The world needs this band, and a guitar hero who not only has the chops to blow our minds, but the universal appeal and songwriting skills we used to see in bands from the ‘70s and ‘80s. This is the guy or girl who will save rock music. In a weird, quasi-religious way, we are awaiting a second coming of sorts, the arrival of a single individual, a prophet who will change everything, and usher in a new golden era of rock guitar.
Clapton did it. Hendrix did it. Van Halen did it. But it has been a long time. Is there someone out there who can step up?
Maybe it is you. If you work hard enough, make the right decisions, have a little luck and somehow manage to come up with a fresh idea or two, maybe you will be the one to bring rock music back to the public eye. Maybe, thanks to you, the world will collectively come to its senses and begin to recognize real musical talent again.
Die as a Dinosaur or Live as a Bird
People have told me I am a dinosaur because of my views on music and culture. What they are saying is I am stuck in the past and unable to evolve to a new way of thinking. I am okay with that, because what I see today in the music world simply doesn’t compare to decades past. I can’t simply pretend it is okay for the sake of fitting in with mainstream culture. I love music and guitar way too much.
Besides, dinosaurs did change. Many researchers believe some of them evolved into birds. So, you tell me which is more awesome: a dinosaur or a bird? Tyrannosaurus Rex or a sparrow? Personally, I’d rather go down in a fiery global calamity with my fellow dinosaurs than live as a bird among birds.
Then again, maybe things will change. Is it an exaggeration to say the world is doomed because of bad music, or the public’s lack of concern over it? Maybe, but I do think the world is a better place when truly talented people are recognized and rewarded for their efforts.
Can one guitar player change it all? I think so. They say things go in cycles, so maybe it is just a matter of time until that one guitarist in that one band starts a revolution that will change everything.
Until then, we can keep on seeking out underground music and supporting those musicians who are fighting the good fight. I’d like to again see the day where I turn on the television and see rock bands instead of pop divas, and guitar players instead of hip hop.
Hopefully it will happen before this dinosaur goes extinct.
Is Rock Music Dead?
People have been saying rock is dead for decades. Are they finally right?
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