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ISSUE 117 VOL 17 PUBLISHED 4/30/2004

Rock n' roll is dead?

By Ian Anderson
Executive Editor

Friday, April 30, 2004

The modern music industry is confused. In search of what is next to come, major record labels are scrambling to decipher what the youth of America want to listen to. Generally, the record industry follows fashion and cultural trends when deciding who will be the "next big thing." When the "cool" and "underground" trends become too cool to remain underground, large labels take notice. This trend-lemming method of following social norms isn't new; it's why large corporations conduct market research  to analyze and predict a particular market's movement and need and to keep their fingers on the pulse of the new music scene.

It seems that the music industry may have lost touch with rock-and-roll reality. How could they know what people who consider themselves "underground" enjoy listening to when, if "punk" -- a term generally used to describe the counter-cultural movement in the 1970s and 1980s -- is typed into's search engine, the top five "punk" recording artists listed are Kelly Osbourne, Blink 182, Simple Plan, Hoobastank and Yellowcard? Something is wrong with the modern music industry's image of rock-and-roll, but what is it that made the industry lose their grasp on the spirit of independent and alternative music? Here follows a brief history of the grand genre of rock 'n roll post-Elvis Presley.

In December 1963, the Beatles had their first hit in America: "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." Shortly after, Beatle-mania devastated the States, leaving the major labels of America wanting on the bandwagon -- hence the conception of the Monkees, the cuter and friendlier version of their slightly rebellious British counterparts. This creation led to the record industry's discovery of how to saturate the youth market and coerce product sales by following and creating trends on what is "in." This method of promoting trends -- rather than promoting music -- continued through the 1960s into the early 1970s with artists like Rod Stewart and records like "Frampton Comes Alive."

But, in New York in the early 1970s, artists that were basically unknown and had never dreamt of creating a blip on a major record label's radar screens -- like the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and the Dolls of New York (later known as the New York Dolls) -- began a backlash against a spoon-fed, profit-seeking music industry. They created a new style of "alternative-bohemian" entertainment based on a "do-it-yourself" (DIY) attitude -- a spin-off of what artists like the Stooges and David Bowie started in 1967, artists whose attitudes came from politico-rock bands like the MC5 in 1965, who were inspired by artists like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in 1963. This odd group of New Yorkers wrote loud, fast and short songs about anti-consumerism and anti-social tendencies -- starting the "punk rock" movement.

Then, in April 1976, the Ramones released their first record -- which no one bought. They then went to London in July and inspired the formation of bands like the Clash, the Damned and Souixie and the Banshees to form, who together started a punk rock scene in London, which eventually got back to the states with the release of "Nevermind the Bullocks" by the Sex Pistols in November 1977 off of EMI (one of the world's largest corporate labels). However, the Sex Pistols' influence was limited due to Sid Vicious' death in February 1979, which ended the band's tenure.

The Clash then released "London Calling" in January 1980, which has often been considered the last "true" punk record of the punk movement -- even though the Dead Kennedys released "In God We Trust, Inc." in 1981 and the Ramones continued releasing records through the 1990s.

"Punk" then evolved into "Alternative" with the Minneapolis based Replacements' first major release "Let It Be" in 1984 -- contrasting the hair metal and Michael Jackson dominated airwaves and music television. "Alternative" turned into "Grunge" with Pixies-inspired Nirvana and their first major label release "Nevermind" in 1991. The Seattle grunge-rock-punk scene then lasted a few years until Kurt Cobain took his life in 1994.

After people realized that they wanted "happier" music than the stuff that the "Grunge" movement was offering, "slow-punk" evolved into bands like Weezer and Sunny Day Real Estate, but it also reverted back to the Clash-Stiff Little Fingers influenced Green Day's major label release "Dookie" in 1995, which was fun, pop-y and chock-full of harmonies.

This led to the eventual creation of the now-known genre of pop-punk, which handed the record industry the perfect formula for multi-platinum selling pop-rock-punk artists. Bands like Blink 182, New Found Glory and Sum 41 were suddenly manufactured to ride the waves of Green Day's success.

Everything seemed to be going fine in the alternative music genre until pop-punk, and therein lies the problem with modern music: an environment similar to the 1960s, in which bands seem to be manufactured, rather than discovered, had been created. No longer do we hear about hip, new rockers from garages and basements in the middle of some strange city, we only hear of hip, new artists from any given label that can jump in unison -- that is how the major labels lost the spirit of independent and alternative music.

The strongest music scenes and the most influencial bands have developed in close-knit communities like New York (Ramones), London (Sex Pistols), Seattle (Nirvana) and even Minneapolis (Replacements). These scenes were able to exist in their own little bubbles without the influence of major labels.

Not since the Seattle scene (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Bikini Kill) has there been a sudden explosion of a certain region's music. Now, the industry is trying to find the next Nirvana -- and they're struggling to do so. For example, in 2002, the industry experimented with "The" bands: the Vines, the Hives and the Strokes (though it should be noted that the Strokes started DIY in New York), and the current attempt at reviving artists like the Stooges (with Jet), Queen (with the Darkness) and the Cars (with Rooney).

The "is rock dead?" question has been asked before -- particularly in the 1980s after hair-metal bands dominated the charts. But then, Nirvana reinvented the wheel. Are we experiencing this same lull?

Perhaps we are, but there is hope. Modest Mouse's most recent release, "Good News For People Who Love Bad News," was just released by Epic Records and Sony; it is extremely unique that such large labels would work with an artist previously-known as purely an "indie" band.

This may indicate that change in the industry is approaching. Independent artists may start signing with major labels hoping to bring their music to a greater audience, and major labels may begin capitalizing on those artist's creativity and innovation, which may result in the eventual overthrowing of the pop music hierarchy.

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