Out of Sync
Super Cute Adolescents and Multi-Million Dollar Business Deals Put Americas Rock Music in Jeopardy
By Jane Liddle
It seems that popular music is suffering an identity crisis. Over the past two years, the charts have been dominated by hip hop, single women artists, and pop music. This year at the Grammys, Lauryn Hill, a hip hop artist, took home five Grammy awards, including best record of the year. Last summer, the Lilith Fair was the most successful concert tour, and pop acts like the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears have been breaking records for the fastest selling albums and singles. It started with the Spice Girls, who went straight to number one quicker than the Beatles. Since then, rock n roll, has been pushed into the background.
The evidence can be found in a close look at the Billboard charts. This year, rock groups Marilyn Manson and Hole released an album in October that debuted at number one. Both albums slipped quickly down the chart in a matter of weeks, and by February Hole was 68 and Manson wasnt even in the top one hundred. Meanwhile, Lauryn Hill and the Beastie Boys, both hip hop artists, stayed in the top ten throughout the months. N Sync, an all male pop act, also held their top ten spot, while Kiss, a classic rock band, put out an album that debuted at number one and fell drastically to number 35 the next week. The verdict: whether they deserve it or not, non-rock bands albums have more staying power on the charts.
History Repeats Itself
Popular music tends to go in cycles. Earlier in the decade, music was dominated by pop acts New Kids on the Block and Vanilla Ice, only to give way to Nirvana and grunge music. For a few years, rock n roll was back and in full swing with acts like Pearl Jam, Radiohead, and Sound Garden. The concert tour Lollapalooza that specialized in bringing together an eclectic array of rock and alternative bands kicked off. The music that became popular was dubbed alternative, mainly because it was an alternative to the pop music that dominated previously. In reality, the pop music that was being pushed aside was music made in expensive studios with virtually no live instruments. The songs were formulaic and, in general, the lyrics can be characterized as upbeat and catchy. The alternative music that came into the foreground was more classicly rock n roll. Musicians replaced singers and dancers, electric guitars replaced keyboards or samples, and an actual drummer replaced drum machines. But now, only a few years later, rock n roll has been pushed back behind the curtain. Even lollapalooza couldnt find enough interest among record companies to support the tour last summer. According to the cyclical nature of music, one may hope that soon the music pendulum will swing rocks way again, like it has done in the past. But this time it may be different. "The result of this merger, besides costs being cut and jobs being slashed, is more focus on instant gratification rather than nurturing and developing an actual band."
Breaking the Cycle
. Record companies tend to merchandise pop acts to death, particularly catering to younger teens and children. While they do this, the audience grows and matures and becomes disinterested. Trish, a manager at a novelty store in Massachusetts, has seen the short shelf life of pop acts. " N Syncs popularity will last probably a few more months, maybe a year. These groups dont last very long. A year ago all of our Spice Girls merchandise was up in the front of the store, but now everything is in the back and on sale. Now Backstreet Boys and N Sync are in the front... But after that it will just be another act with different good looking teenagers."
On the other hand, just because pop music tends not to last very long, doesnt mean rock music is destined for a comeback. In late 1998, a merger between the record companies Polygram and Universal was finalized, giving the new powerhouse about a quarter of the recording market. The result of this merger, besides costs being cut and jobs being slashed, is more focus on instant gratification rather than nurturing and developing an actual band. There will be even fewer people deciding what the masses are going to be listening to, and that means fewer people being able to scout bands. Even before this merger, bands and other acts that wanted to be signed couldnt just hand over a demo tape that showed talent to record executives and hope to be signed. They had to be fully produced and retail ready.
These days bands have to be a ready made package before the major label even considers them. What this results in is even more one hit wonders and sophomore album flops. The companies arent willing to shell out money for something that has potential, or is even withstanding, they want something that guarantees money instantly and up front. This means taking fewer chances and sticking with what seems to be working, which in these times mostly means mediocre formulaic music fronted by cute teens. Melissa, the a worker at an independent record label Villa Villa Kula that specializes in showcasing female talent, says, "All I hear is shit on the radio. The songs all sound the same. Sometimes I have a hard time distinguishing between Alanis Morisette and Natalie Imbruglia, and Im not even exaggerating. Its like the record companies found something that worked a few years ago and are refusing to try something new."
The merged Polygram and Universal company is also going to give pink slips to many of the artists that were previously signed. Any artist whose last abum did not sell over 100,00 copies are in jeopardy of being cut, this includes rock bands like Girls Against Boys, Buffalo Tom, and Morissey, who has quite a large cult following. The California punk band Face to Face has already been let go. Deric, lead singer of New York band Black Dice that just put out a record on the respected independent label Gravity, doesnt expect to be signed to a major label soon. "First of all, none of [the band members] dance, or are willing to learn. Secondly, we dont wear matching outfits. Thirdly we dont shower enough." Black Dices problem seems to be a universal one.
Rock is Here to Stay
There is some hope. With 3000 record executives losing their jobs because of the merger, theres bound to be new start up and independent labels scooping up the artists left behind. These labels will be able to do what the major labels cant, look at bands on a more local and intimate level. Interscope records, a company that has been putting out quality hip-hop acts, are also looking into signing rock bands. Dreamworks, a fairly new label partly owned by Steven Speilberg, has made its purpose to develop acts and create catalog bands, and, whats more, has the funds to do so. Both Elliot Smith and Rufus Wainright released their major label debuts on Dreamworks. In 1998, Wainrights album was voted record of the year by Rolling Stone and Elliot Smith performed at the Oscars for his work with Good Will Hunting. Although Wainwright sold about 30,000 records and Elliot Smith 90,000, Dreamworks is confident that their time will come when the masses will appreciate them more. Dreamworks will become an influential label when rock music resurges.
Dreamworks efforts are proof that rock music is not dead. Major record companies want to be behind the guaranteed dollar, not great music. Right now they just dont seem to care about rock n roll. But the bands are still playing.
Jane Liddle is a sophomore creative and professional writing major at Carnegie Mellon University.