Closed Frontier

Is Rock Over?

By Sam McPheeters, Laura Park



BY SAM McPHEETERS, ILLUSTRATIONS BY LAURA PARK




It’s odd to think of the Wild West as something that could be “closed,” like a cardboard box or a failed department store. And yet the 1890 US Census did precisely this, with the audacious announcement that the government would no longer tabulate western migration, as the frontier region had ceased to exist. With one stroke of a pen, the entire Wild West—all its buttes and prairies and outlaw towns and poorly lit whorehouses—became simply the West, just one more region of the United States. Throughout the 1890s, academics debated the psychic impact of this closing on a country that no longer had anywhere to go.

Thirteen years later, a 12-minute motion picture called The Great Train Robbery ushered in the genre of western films. It’s a grubby little movie, crude and surprisingly violent. It was also the first film to use crosscuts, double exposures, and location shooting. For many Americans, The Great Train Robbery was the first movie, period. When the leader of the outlaws stared into the camera and fired his gun straight at the viewer, early audiences reacted with panic.

If the arbitrary absurdity of the census ruling didn’t kill the Wild West, The Great Train Robbery certainly did. Dime novels, minstrel shows, and traveling exhibitions had been repackaging cowboy legends since before the Civil War, but it took the new medium of film to coalesce folklore into genuine mass culture. Within a decade, the “western” was a staple of silent film, and actors like Tom Mix were working out the mechanics of how to be a movie star.

To a startling degree, modern America finds itself in the same position almost exactly 100 years later. Rock ’n’ roll is to 21st-century America what the Wild West was to 20th-century America: a closed frontier, ripe for mass mythology. Because our era’s perspective begins with a pop culture that’s already rife with mythologies, we are particularly blind to the colossal impact that rock music—from Bill Haley to grunge—will have on the century before us.

This century even has a direct analogy to The Great Train Robbery. In just five years, Guitar Hero has mushroomed into a multibillion-dollar franchise, complete with clones, sequels, and competitions. Idols of classic rock lend their talents to the game’s software just as Wyatt Earp once consulted for John Wayne and filmmaker John Ford. Guitar Hero’s medium—virtual direct participation—is still in its infancy, much as the film industry was in 1903. In decades to come, immersive, three-dimensional multiplayer rock gaming will open new emotional channels for future music fans, avenues for self-expression unrelated to songwriting or performing as we know it (and this doesn’t include unforeseeable innovations, much as CGI would have been unimaginable to 1903 filmmakers). If you ever felt that shiver of excitement hearing the crowd roar as your virtual representative sauntered onstage, just imagine what that experience will be like with 3-D, high-def eyewear, in full stereo, in a seemingly real concert hall, with no TV screen between you and your adoring audience.

It’s not hard to see the game’s enchanted-mannequin characters as primitive precursors to the photorealistic gaming that’s just a few years away. The game itself offers plenty of sneak peaks into the near future of a music-gaming singularity. In 2008, Metallica fans traded Guitar Hero versions of the band’s new album Death Magnetic in protest against the retail album’s alleged overcompression. Last year’s controversy over Kurt Cobain’s maltreated Guitar Hero avatar—a ghost marionette condemned to endless karaoke—surely heralds the many upcoming conflicts involving CGI and celebrity spirits.

Guitar Hero debuted in 2005. By the logic of the Great Train Robbery analogy, this would backdate rock ’n’ roll’s conclusion to the early 1990s (snarkier writers than I might date 1994—the death of Cobain and the birth of Creed—as the year of death for the genre, if not all of popular music). That’s a bit of a sloppy endpoint, but not entirely so. Certainly, there haven’t been any new mass-marketing labels like “grunge” since grunge.

What can be charted rather precisely is the dearth of new hit makers in this century. Here’s Billboard magazine’s Top Tours of 2000-2009:
 

1. The Rolling Stones
2. U2
3. Madonna
4. Bruce Springsteen
5. Elton John
6. Celine Dion
7. Dave Matthews Band
8. Kenny Chesney
9. Bon Jovi
10. Billy Joel
11. The Police
12. The Eagles
13. Tim McGraw
  14. Aerosmith
15. Neil Diamond
16. Cher
17. Paul McCartney
18. Rod Stewart
19. Metallica
20. Rascal Flatts
21. Britney Spears
22. Jimmy Buffett
23. Tina Turner
24. Toby Keith
25. Trans-Siberian Orchestra

It turns out the whole decade was one giant old-timer-palooza, a series of unending backslap marathons for long-established acts. Less than a quarter of these artists even sprang from the 90s, and only one entry—cornbag country snoozers Rascal Flatts—could be considered a new act (and even then only barely, having first cracked the market six months into 2000).


It’s a sign of how fragmented pop music has become that no new genres—let alone bands—were able to capture this nation’s heart in the past ten years. Hip-hop, pop punk, emo, and “indie” can each boast some measure of rock’s energy, but all have long since forfeited any claim to its innovation (20 years ago, critics compared Jane’s Addiction to Led Zeppelin with a straight face; no band draws such comparisons this century). Exciting new music still thrives in the subgenres, but modern musicians draw increasing amounts of inspiration from tradition, not originality. The sexagenarian Rolling Stones do serial victory laps around the world, just as an aging Buffalo Bill toured America and Europe in the 1880s and 90s, performing rope and horse tricks alongside Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull. Even the most deranged, depraved, shocking performers of 2010 have to maneuver around the precedent set by all the deranged, depraved, shocking performers of the recent past. Just as in 1890, there’s nowhere left to go.

By the late 1980s, the music business was ruled by six companies (since narrowed to four), and major-label consolidation served as an easy stand-in for an entire industry’s sins: homogenization, backdoor censorship, creeping blandness. But a far more sinister situation hid beneath the consolidation of majors: the explosion of minors. As recording and manufacturing prices dropped through the 1990s, the world faced an onslaught of artistic output unprecedented in human history.


 
A May 2001 issue of Billboard spelled out this predicament with hard data culled from the previous year’s SoundScan. At the turn of the century, independent labels were responsible for 71 percent of all albums released—more than 200,000 titles. Even with the smallest of pressings (1,000 per), this meant the creation of more than 200 million new physical objects in just that one year and for just that one category. But only 17 percent of the cash from album sales actually went back to these independent labels. And the average sale for indie labels was only 635 units per title. The article concluded:

I’m sure distributors would like to believe that they are in the sales business, but, if truth be told, they are in the shipping and receiving business, and the essence of their game is sending large numbers of unwanted CDs back and forth from one shipping dock to another.

In any other sphere of human activity—meaning, one not pegged to people’s artistic yearnings—such behavior has a name: economic bubble.

Album sales have plummeted 60 percent since then. In just 20 years, compact discs have transformed from luxuries into clutter (think about how many you’ve purchased this year, versus how many you’ve had to toss in the trash), and the vibe of doom has crept steadily up the industry food chain. In 2010, major labels lurch toward any teen star or award show that can provide even a modest monthly sales bump. Although the economies of minor and major labels are vastly different, both are increasingly looking like unsustainable business models sprinkled with the occasional lucky exception.

The production glut begat a band glut. The days of ubiquitous pop stars are gone. In their place is a blur of ever-fragmenting subgenres, propelled into and out of public favor by DSL ADD. In the past decade, audiences have championed and dismissed blog house, dance-punk, chillwave, crunk, electroclash, freak folk, glitch, grime, mash-ups, neo-lo-fi, and many, many stabs at straightforward rock revivals. Every year, more and more bands compete for dwindling club space. Indie/underground acts of the 2010s are choking on the success of indie/underground bands of the 1980s and 1990s.




Nowhere is this buyer’s market more on display than at showcase festivals. While still plenty of fun for audiences and industry reps, the festivals have evolved into something else for bands: a blast of artistic humiliation disguised as careerist opportunity disguised as a holiday from regular touring life. With more and more competition every year, bands have a longer and longer shot at getting signed and a longer and longer shot at having that signing mean anything. At South by Southwest, dozens of bands have to play vacant clubs at 11 AM. There are just too many groups, too many singer-songwriters, too many dreamers.

Last October, the Village Voice’s “Why Does CMJ Exist, Exactly?” depicted NYC’s prestigious CMJ Music Marathon as uninspired and informally rigged, its shows “coronations, not introductions.” The article continued:

CMJ may well be for no one in particular at this point, give or take a few Europeans who come over, happy to have a decent amount of otherwise far-away things grouped in one place. (Ditto otherwise non-nightlife prone A&R types, who can knock a bunch of look-sees out at once.) It’s an event that persists out of inertia.

There is still one corner of the music industry with plenty of momentum: nostalgia. Cover bands—once a novelty genre spawned by Elvis mimics and Beatlemania—are now an essential part of the nightlife underbrush in every major American city. Through the past 30 years, the Hard Rock Cafe has expanded to a quarter of the nations on earth. Even a global economic meltdown hasn’t slowed the mania for memorabilia. Two months into the Great Recession, Christie’s auction house held a “Punk/Rock” sale, repackaging hundreds of bits of ephemera as “rare artifacts.” There was a photocopied Germs flyer (sold for $688), a Sex Pistols promo poster ($6,250), and a signed Debbie Harry photo ($8,750). Tellingly, the auction spanned the 40 years between Bill Haley and Nirvana, as if the auctioneers were using their prestige to imply finality.

Then there’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, where, for $22, you can visit Slash’s top hat, displayed with the same gravity as Abe Lincoln’s less-snazzy stovepipe in the National Archives. After the Sex Pistols declined induction in 2006, John Lydon famously sent a note dismissing the museum as a “piss stain.” If the Hall of Fame doesn’t one day reverently frame and display the note, Christie’s will probably sell it to someone who will.

The Hall’s induction of rappers has caused ripples of dismay among purists. The museum’s website asserts, in a brash graffiti font, that “hip-hop is rock and roll.” In a lengthy defense of this inclusiveness, the site later asserts that “hip-hop is but the latest iteration of a conversation America has been having with itself for the past 400 years,” which is one of several plausible definitions (another is that hip-hop is part of a much shorter, much louder monologue America has been delivering to the rest of the planet since WWII).



 
It’s a weird question. What are the boundaries of rock ’n’ roll? Guitar Hero is different from DJ Hero in that you need different sets of input controllers. But it’s still the same game. Likewise, rap’s mythology looks a lot like rock’s mythology: beat the odds, reach for the stars, have it all. It’s such a durable template that it’s hard to think of any popular genre (or subgenre, or sub-sub-subgenre) that falls outside this baby-boomer-constructed mythology. Even the weirdest of electronic bands still operate within the framework of performance-based engagement. If you don’t get paid in cash and fame, you get paid in excitement and notoriety. Perform live with a musical instrument invented in the 20th century, and you’re almost definitely playing under the vast Big Tent of Rock ’n’ Roll.

It is so big and old a tent, in fact, that for many musicians alive today, it’s hard to imagine a world that doesn’t follow the rules of American rock mythology. This lack of context has birthed a mutant strain of entitlement. Some of this entitlement is merely technological. For anyone under 30, a world of unlimited home recording, instantaneous global distribution, and infinite storage capacity (as of this writing, $100 buys you nearly two years of MP3 space) is a birthright, not a luxury.

But there’s an even deeper entitlement at play now, insidious in its ubiquity. This is the idea that all music is worthy of recognition. The Future of Music Coalition—the prestigious musicians’ rights nonprofit—states in their concise mission statement that they want artists “compensated fairly for their work.” In 2010, it is a commonplace notion that “musician” is a career like any other, that—like bakers, bankers, doctors, or farmers—one should be paid for the simple act of making music. A June FOMC study found that musicians lack health insurance at twice the national rate (33 percent to 17 percent). That’s a sad statistic, but one with ambiguous significance. You could just as easily point out that men living under bridges lack health insurance at 100 percent the national rate. “If you eliminate intellectual-property royalties,” anti-Napster activist Travis Hill proclaimed way back in 2000, “there won’t be a reason for musicians to create any work.”


 
That’s not really correct either. People made music for several millennia before intellectual-property royalties. The clergy, military, storytellers, and propagandists have all had a long head start on getting musicians inspired to compose. For all the musicians out there struggling to decipher their place in 21st-century America, it turns out there is an easily discerned precedent. It’s called 19th-century America.

Vaudeville in particular had some eerie parallels with the current small/indie touring band circuit. A huge national network of nightclubs, halls, and theaters existed a century ago, fueled by audiences hungry for entertainment and open to new ideas. Vaudevillians networked, hustled, and endured long stretches of downtime—just like traveling musicians today. Overlook the internal combustion engine, and the two eras of touring look awfully similar.

There was, however, one big difference. Vaudevillians were acutely aware of their own market. If your act bombed, you retooled it. As blackface became less and less politically palatable throughout the United States, blackface acts grew scarce. Even the “nut acts”—free-form, furniture-smashing loonies—aimed for laughs and responded to market forces (i.e., nightclub owners banning them for going bonkers). No vaudevillian dared alienate the audience they depended on for their bread and butter. There were no vaudeville equivalents of performance art or noise bands. Of all the varied wild acts touring the country at this time last century—dancers, magicians, musicians, ventriloquists—there wasn’t a single act that demanded the audience meet the artist on the artist’s terms. “Expressing oneself” was something for painters and poets, not performers.



The current world of bands and recordings is actually a freakish anomaly in the vast sweep of human history, precariously dependent on a series of interlocking innovations. Without a national power grid (1890s-1930s), the interstate highway system (1950s), or reliable gasoline (1910s-90s), bands would have no way of documenting or promoting their music. The internet has rapidly made itself indispensable to all musicians. And post-hippie-days social freedoms are so universal now, it’s easy to forget that it was entirely possible to get arrested for saying “fuck” on a public stage just half a century ago.

Each of these items might seem like trivia from a distant past. In reality, each is a variable. And variables can change. The 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse gave Americans a taste of infrastructure insecurity. If 2008’s market crash had gone slightly differently, a lot more bridges and highways and overpasses would have been left to rot. And a full-scale economic collapse could have subjected musicians (like all other travelers) to the rolling blackouts and highway banditry that lurk not far from the edges of any civilization. Even today, steep gas prices have made cheap touring a thing of the past.

Here’s a weird analogy. In 2008, overthinkingit.com graphed Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and then overlaid this data with a second graph plotting US crude-oil-field production. The two little mountains are nearly identical, although Rolling Stone dated rock’s peak to 1965, and US oil production peaked in 1971. For the most part, the only insight this provides is into the biases of Rolling Stone writers. But this is itself instructive, in that Rolling Stone is the standard-bearer for the baby boomers, a demographic with a proven track record of imparting biases to further generations. If enough people believe something has ended, at what point does it actually end? The article includes a grim analysis: “It would seem that, like oil, the supply of great musical ideas is finite.”

This comment was probably meant as a gag. And yet a lot of middle-aged people—raised in rock and shocked by its slump—seem to have reached this bizarre conclusion in earnest. It’s a recipe for curmudgeonliness. Last November, avant-garde composer Glenn Branca caused a minor stir with a New York Times op-ed, “The Score: The End of Music.” It’s a confusing harangue, grasping and fumbling around a grand assumption of musical finality. “The paradigm shift may not be a shift but a dead stop.” For the future, Branca envisioned nothing but Muzak designed to lure consumers.

The op-ed racked up hundreds of nasty online comments in just a few hours. Oddly, many started from the assumption that there is good music and there is bad, and that the bad is in the majority, and that Branca had not done his research by neglecting to seek the good. Being human, the commenters never reached a consensus on exactly which music was good.




Perhaps plummeting record sales aren’t just a casualty of file-sharing or the limitations of compact discs. Perhaps the grand, sinking morass of the music industry in 2010 is also an indicator that music isn’t quite as important to the generation currently coming of age. Justin Bieber fans are loyal consumers, but they have exponentially more avenues for their prepubescent hopes and dreams than Leif Garrett fans did 30 years ago.

With increasing frequency, popular music in the 21st century—in all its strata and subbasements—resembles a vast pyramid scheme. The first wave of every subgenre reaps the prestige, leaving future generations with greater competition and channels of expression flooded with mediocrity. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, both a beneficiary and an instigator of this pyramid scheme, defends its own existence with a drippy banality: “If rock and roll has a purpose, it is to get people in a position, either intellectually or geographically, to communicate with one another.” As business rationales go, it’s pretty weak sauce.

Precedent has tremendous weight. The overthinkingit.com piece nails it:

Assuming some constraints on the definition of the form, the amount of innovation that can be done within that form is finite. Most of it will come early and fast, then decline after the peak.

There’s a reason innovators get the biggest slice of the pie. There’s a reason modern cubist painters are not famous. It’s a sad phenomenon, and one not restricted just to obscure musicians (just look at the Killers’ undisguised ache to fit into the rock pantheon). At its best, music allows listeners to transcend the slime of life. No technological innovations will change that. But more and more, it’s going to be old bands and old songs that inspire the masses.

Branca commenter #116 wrote, “Live music remains an irreplaceable human experience.” This part is not so certain. The odds seem awfully good that attending a virtual concert—a magic concert with unicorns and singing bulldozers doing backup vocals while you and a naked Jimi Hendrix and a naked Kurt Cobain wail away in utterly realistic surround-sound 3-D—is going to be far more exciting than the reality of concerts today. Rock ’n’ roll, it turns out, will never die. It won’t even age. It’ll just evolve into something else, something where fans strut on endless computer-hallucinated stages, celebrating past glories, all of rock’s martyrs and lifers frozen in myth. As the Village Voice’s review of Metallica’s Guitar Hero III album download pointed out, who has time to listen to an album when you can live it?
 

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